Can you be weak and throw 80 meters?

Can you be weak and throw a hammer 80 meters? Of course not. You need an engine capable of producing immense power. That’s both common sense and science. But then along comes along an example like newly crowned world champion Ethan Katzberg. Someone like Katzberg makes you question how the world works and all the assumptions you’ve made about throwing.

Last week we quietly dropped our latest podcast with guest Dylan Armstrong talking about Katzberg’s development. The big thing that stood out to most listeners were some numbers Armstrong shared about Katzberg’s strength training:

Some people are surprised, some people are amazed, and others simply don’t believe it. It all brings us back to the question of if you can be weak and throw far? Science and logic still apply: you have to be strong. But Katzberg shows there is more than one way to develop your engine. Not all engines are built in the weight room.

You have to put numbers in context

One reason we focus so much on weight room numbers is because we think of them as objective pieces of data that tell us the whole story. In reality that is far from the case since numbers mean nothing without context.

Here are a few examples of how big of a difference context can make:

  • Training age – If you’ve been lifting for a decade and can’t lift much, that’s one thing. Katzberg only started lifting weights after high school. He was a multi-sport athlete in high school and never hit the weight room. Now he’s still only 21. Of course his weight room numbers will be less than the typical American who has been in a structured lifting program since age 14.
  • Technique – As with training age, lifting technique plays a big role as well. We want the numbers to be objective, but we can’t even use consistent terminology. Talking about a snatch best could mean anything from a muscle snatch to an ass-to-grass-caught competition-style snatch. Those are almost two different lifts but we throw the numbers around together as if we’re talking about the same thing. I’d much rather have an athlete be able to muscle snatch 90-kilograms than competition snatch 110. It’s about the power, not just the weight on the bar.
  • Size – The heavier your bodyweight the easier it is to lift big weights. And the taller you are, the harder it is. Katzberg is taller and lighter than most of his competitors. So, again, of course his numbers are less than theirs.
  • Programming – To be clear, the squat numbers above are simply training weights, not a personal best like was discussed in the snatch. But a lot of people still asked how you can prepare the body for the immense forces produced in an 80-meter throw with “just” 110- or 120-kilograms on your back. That all comes down to the programming. Let’s not forget that 120-kilograms is not light. If you’re moving that weight fast and explosively with maximal intent, you are producing immense forces that provide a huge training stimulus. To ignore that training effect is ignorant. Yes, it is a different stimulus than moving 200-kilograms at 0.3 meters/second, but when taken in context of the whole training plan it is the stimulus that Armstrong and Katzberg actually want. They will squat 5-6 times a week at that weight, giving them a leg stimulus that is on the one hand quite potent, and on the other hand recoverable so they can always come back the next day and keep the focus on throwing and technique. In other words: they can have their cake and eat it too.
  • Priorities – Armstrong’s priority is throwing. Sure, they could invest more time in lifting technique, or spend some more sessions chasing a new personal best in the weight room. But why? Does it really matter? In the end he can produce the same amount of force whether or not he makes a small technical adjustment to add a few kilos to the bar. Armstrong would Katzberg rather spend that time getting some more throws in.

In the end, these numbers have a lot of shock value. But when you look at them in context Katzberg is probably stronger than you would think at first glance.

Why are the numbers even important?

We can quibble about numbers, but in the end Katzberg is “weaker” in the weight room compared to his competitors. That’s a fact. So was the world record holder Yuri Sedykh. That’s a fact too. Throwers like Jud Logan could outlift Sedkyh any day of the week in the 1980s, but Sedykh would routinely beat them by 5+ meters. So then who cares how much they lifted?

Was Sedykh weak? Of course not. He could throw the 10-kilogram hammer over 70 meters. He could do plate twists holding more plates than I can even grip. That is real strength. Is Katzberg weak? Again, no way. He can throw 65 meters with the 10-kilogram hammer. You can’t do that if you’re weak. Sedykh and Katzberg might not be able to express their strength in certain arbitrary lifts with a barbell, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t strong.

To bring this back to the engine analogy, throwing the heavy hammer 65-meters shows that Katzberg clearly has a powerful engine. Everyone wants to know what his horsepower is and how many kilos he can put on the bar, but that’s pointless. We already know the engine has enough power. We also have to remember that the fastest cars don’t have the biggest engines. The fastest cars are efficient for their purpose.

The Swiss car above recently broke the record for 0 to 100 kmh in less than a second. The thing is tiny and light, but it gets the job done. Bigger cars have to overcome more inertia. And bigger engines often have trouble translating that power to the ground. All of that can make a big engine irrelevant. The same is often the case with throwers. We need an engine that is fit for purpose.

Find your engine, train your engine

After the @ThrowersUniverse post was shared, I received dozens of questions about the first part of the text (his numbers) and zero questions about the second part (how his focus is throwing). The saying goes that we are throwers, not lifters, but we still can’t stop focusing on the numbers because most people still feel the engine of the throw is created in the weight room.

At Vern’s GAIN conference this year I talked about understanding your athlete’s engine, an idea I took from Nathan Ott and expanded upon. Ott talked about how hammer throwers either push, pull, or drag the hammer to accelerate it. I applied the concept more generally to understand how athletes work in their sport: some people create power through strength, some through athleticism, some through levers, etc.

If you understand how your athletes works best, you’ll have the best chance of success. If your athlete’s engine is athleticism and you bog them down trying to increase strength, you’ll likely develop a meaningless quality for them and simultaneously take away what they were good at. Same thing with cars. Drop a heavy engine in a tiny Miata and it’ll fall apart.

Armstrong knows Katzberg’s engine and because he’s helped tune it. His engine it isn’t developed in the weight room; it’s developed in the ring. He’s long. He’s connected. He’s fast. And that’s how he trains as well. This quote in our podcast says it better than I ever could:

“Ethan can snatch probably 90 to 95 kilos. Maybe he’ll get up to 100 by next spring. But that’s not our focus. I want fast, loose, long muscle. And that’s what you need in hammer. I don’t want tight and short.”

Find your engine, know your engine, and train your engine. It’s as simple as that.