Bouncing Off The Walls

Ten biomechanical and training tips you can use to make wall balls suck less.
By Bob LeFavi, Ph.D., CSCS, USAW,

There‘s a phrase written on the whiteboard in my box that has been there for an entire year. It stays there because members won’t let me forget the day when, with a wall-ball WOD programmed, I took stock of the large number of athletes in attendance and inadvertently yelled, “We may not have enough balls for this WOD!” One athlete, choking back tears of laughter, decided to memorialize the statement, and there it has remained ever since.

As much as that double-entendre evoked (and continues to provoke) laughter, it could very well also be taken at face value. Fact is, a wall-ball WOD takes all you have. You enter it knowing that soon your lungs will be on fire, and the reverberating thought in your head will be constant: “Will this never end?” But it really doesn’t have to be that miserable. There’s an optimal technique to wall balls (also called “ball shots”), and learning it can improve your efficiency to the point that, while you may never look forward to wall balls, you will at least no longer have a visceral, nauseated reaction to them. These 10 tips should get you there.

Biomechanical Efficiency

1. Vertical Forearms

One of the biggest biomechanical faults that can occur when performing wall balls is allowing the ball to draw the arms downward. When this happens, the athlete loses time extending and flexing the elbows, and expends much-needed energy pulling the ball back up to propulsion height.

To avoid this costly error, focus on keeping your forearms vertical from the time you catch the ball until the moment it leaves your hands. One cue is to think of your forearms as pointing to the target. Another is to concentrate on keeping your elbows under your hands.

2. Ball Positioning

Remember, the ball is a weight. And like any weight, it gets heavier as you extend it away from your body (in technical terms, as the “resistance arm” becomes longer). Therefore, always keep the ball as close to your body, chin and face as possible.

However, finding the sweet spot at which you can catch the ball close to your face without it smashing you in the kisser is more art than science. The best way to find it is to hold the ball at upper-chest height and position your hands placed on the side of the ball toward the bottom, much like you would for a kettlebell goblet squat.

3. Upright Torso

In order to keep your forearms vertical and the ball in close to your body, you’ve got to maintain an upright torso. Concentrate on keeping your chest high and maintaining the lordotic curve (natural curve) in your lower back.

As soon as you lose the upright torso and lordotic curve, you’ll drop the ball lower and away from you — expending more energy and increasing your time. And worst of all, you’ll scrunch over. That scrunching forward (aka spinal flexion) creates two problems. First, your lower back will begin to ache as a result of working far too hard to extend the spine and counter that forward bend on the way back up. And second, scrunching forward anatomically compresses lung capacity. Within no time, you’ll need to stop to take a deep breath.

4. Triple Extension

Think of the power you generate in wall balls as similar to that of a thruster. In a thruster, you extend at the hip, knee and ankle (called “triple extension”) as you explode upward from the squat. That’s the way you should envision the upward movement of wall balls.

In translating power from your upward movement to the ball, full hip extension is critical (similar to a clean or snatch). As you ascend, focus on popping your hips at the top of the thrust.

But even if you fully extend at all three joints, you can still lose power you’ve generated by pausing before propelling the ball at the top of the squat. Be sure to immediately continue your upward movement by exploding with your arms just as you finish triple extension.

5. Squat Phase Mechanics

Think of the athletes you know who are freakish machines when performing wall balls. We’d bet they’re also the same athletes you know who can front-squat a house. There’s a reason for that. If you have trouble front squatting, you’ll have trouble with your wall-ball technique. Indeed, the same cues coaches give for front squatting apply perfectly to the squat portion of wall balls. Keep your feet in a power position (about shoulder-width apart), shoulders back, chest high and feet flat, being sure to keep the weight in your heels.

Your descent in the squat should begin with hip flexion (hips back slightly), rather than knee flexion, and then move to hips down. Your knees will naturally bend, but if you’re focusing on keeping an upright torso, you’ll avoid bending forward or driving out of your toes.

6. Depth of Squat

The standard in wall balls, as you may know, is for the hip crease to break the plane of the knee joint in the squat. If you do not have good internal motor feedback on where that point is, practice with a ball placed behind you close to your legs so that when you reach a full squat, your hamstrings or buttocks make contact with it. That contact should then trigger your ascent.

But there’s something else to consider. The goal in the wall ball is to bounce out of the bottom of the squat and translate that momentum to the ball. That means that you will benefit from a squat that is as ballistic as possible. If you feel you can’t get a bounce until you’re too low (butt almost at the floor), then you’re wasting both movement and time. To remedy that, try shifting your feet out slightly. This will limit your depth and bring your hamstrings into play earlier, providing force for your ascent earlier.

7. “Absorb” the Ball

When the ball is coming off the target, concentrate on “absorbing” it into your descent. To do this, get your hands back into the “goblet position” quickly and begin descending as the ball reaches the height of your head.

Doing this, you catch the ball high, but more important, you’ll be able to use the ball’s weight to initiate a forceful and ballistic bounce at the bottom. Think of yourself as a human piston and mentally repeat, “Catch high, ride low.”

8. Distance From the Wall

Your ability to efficiently perform much of the above may depend on whether you’re standing the right distance away from the wall. Here’s a good way to find out: Stand in front of the wall with the ball at chest height. With your hands in goblet position, reach forward until the ball touches the wall. This should be an appropriate distance. However, everyone has slightly different anthropometrics and biomechanics, so you may find that you need to adjust this slightly to be most efficient.

Another factor that may influence your personal distance is the “bounciness” of the ball you’re using. If it bounces off the wall very little, you will need to be a bit closer to the wall. If it ricochets off the wall a great deal, you may need to slide back slightly.

Remember, if you’re too far away from the wall, you will catch the ball too far forward. That will pull your hands down and your elbows into extension, causing you to scrunch forward and lose your upright torso.

9. The Throw “Arch”

It often takes a while for CrossFit newbies to get a “feel” for the nuances of the wall-ball arch. They either throw the ball straight up or they power it in a straight line to the lower end of the target. Such throws are neither effective nor efficient.

To perform wall balls with an efficient wall-ball arch, two things must occur. First, the athlete must get a feel for the exact amount of upward force necessary during propulsion so the target is hit at the correct height, without the ball going higher than it needs to. Throwing the ball too high not only means wasting energy, but the additional distance the ball travels either before or after it hits the target also wastes time.

Second, athletes also must acquire a feel for how their fingers affect the arch of the ball. There is a subtle and gentle flexing of the fingers at the top of the throw that causes the ball to eventually curve ever so slightly toward the target. Practice different wrist and finger actions to help identify exactly what movements work best to develop an effective wall-ball arch with your unique biomechanics.

10. Rest Your Arms

Critical to maximizing endurance in a wall-ball WOD is your ability to reduce fatigue in the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint. These muscles work when you elevate your upper extremities. So keeping your arms up for the entire length of your wall-ball session can be daunting and self-defeating. Try this: Immediately after propelling the ball upward, let your arms drop back down. Of course, within a second, you will need to raise them again to catch the ball, but, believe it or not, that momentary relaxation does indeed make a difference in deltoid fatigue. Now, it does take practice and you will need to develop a good rhythm, but it can work to extend your endurance during a grueling chain of wall balls.

Training for Wall Balls

Besides good standard wall-ball practice sessions, there are other things you can do to enhance your wall-ball performance.

Strength Work

Front Squat: As mentioned, wall balls use the same mechanics as the front squat. So if you have some biomechanical difficulty in the front squat, those same problems will transfer to wall balls. Do you have trouble keeping your heels down in a full front squat? Do you struggle to achieve at least full depth? Improving your front squat with training not only will improve your vertical power production in wall balls but also will reduce the metabolic cost involved, thereby improving cardiovascular endurance.

Thrusters: Yeah, we know. You can never get enough thrusters, right? Still, you didn’t need us to tell you that mechanically, thrusters use the same muscle groups in the same patterns as wall balls do. The focus of your thruster training for wall balls should be to reinforce a consistent depth of descent. That depth, even with a loaded thruster bar, should become automatic with training.

Heavy Ball: Your box likely has medicine balls that are heavier than what you normally use in a WOD. By practicing with that markedly heavier ball, you employ the same neuromuscular strategy as a baseball batter who takes swings with a weighted donut on his bat. The focus with heavy-ball training should be to explode out of the bottom. If you can accentuate such explosion with a heavy ball, your explosion with a light ball will increase exponentially.

Endurance Work

Interval Training: Develop your wall-ball endurance through repeated work/rest bouts. Here’s a good strategy: On a day when you’re rested, find the maximum number of unbroken wall balls you can do in a row. That then becomes your benchmark. For set one, try to hit that number, if you can (or come very close). Take a one-minute rest. After that minute, your goal is to hit 75 percent of that number, unbroken. Take a 45-second rest. Now, take the number of wall balls you just hit in set two, divide it in half and perform 10 sets of wall balls at that number with 10 seconds between each set (for a grand total of 12 sets). It’s brutal, but it’s a great way to assess whether your cardiovascular endurance may be a limiting factor for you in wall balls.

Cardio Work: In the end, cardiovascular conditioning is vital to energy production in wall balls (think “Karen”). We cannot forget about or underestimate the importance of running, cycling, rowing and swimming to improve general metcons so your improved muscular force from strength training and your more efficient biomechanics can be realized.

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