Steffan Jones is the last dual professional sportsman in the U.K., having played three years of professional rugby and 20 years of professional cricket. He is currently the Director of Sports Performance at a private school in England and a global fast bowling consultant. He is the fast bowling development coach for the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL, and he also consults with individual fast bowlers, javelin throwers, and pitchers around the world.
Jones is in a unique position because he not only played the sport, but he is a qualified sports scientist, a UKSCA qualified strength and conditioning coach, and a Level 3 qualified technical coach. Additionally, Steffan is the only cricket coach to be qualified in teaching the Lila movement Exogen suit, which he regards as the #1 specific strength tool in the business. His focus on specific strength includes weighted ball bowling, the application of the Bondarchuk classification, and the utilization of isometric training as part of his “skill-stability training.”
Freelap USA: Throwing velocity is easy to measure and challenging to improve, but it’s still genetic based on anatomy. When screening athletes, what do you look for outside of skill to identify ability or talent that may be dormant?
Steffan Jones: Like most athletic actions, fast bowling is not about building robots that perform the same way in a rigid model; it’s about making sure the “attractors,” which are the key basic, essential, fixed movements, are stable in the technical completion of the action. The individuality and idiosyncratic elements are the “fluctuators”—changeable components that have degrees of freedom that do not negatively impact bowling performance. When the system’s attractors are stable, it becomes more robust (resistant to perturbations) and more resilient (resistant to state change/tissue failure). The ultimate goal is to develop robust fast bowlers.
However, the process will always begin with a little dose of reality. You are born to bowl fast: a genuine pace (90+ mph) is in your DNA with the gene ACNT3 RR, giving you the pace floor. Some bowlers start at a higher level than others and will clearly have the ability to go higher. The higher the floor, the faster you can bowl. So, in fact, you are born to bowl fast.Genuine speedsters are born, but a medium fast bowler can become fast medium with smart work off the field, says @SteffanJones105. Click To Tweet
However, everyone can bowl faster with the right coach intervention and a growth mindset that determines the pace ceiling. Every bowler can push that ceiling higher! Genuine speedsters are born, but a medium fast bowler can become fast medium with smart work off the field. How can you push that ceiling up? The fact of the matter is this: Fundamentally, a bowler can only increase their pace ceiling by improving their biomotor qualities. Technique alone will not work. You have to overload technique to provide stimulus for adaptation and physical and technical progression.
“The number of fibers in a muscle is what’s genetically determined, it is established at the moment of conception by the respective genomes received from both parents.” –Henk Kraaijenhof1
You cannot alter the number of fast twitch fibers through environmental factors like training, but what you can do is increase the number of myofibrils within each individual fiber through the correct training. This is what increases bowling velocity, but it’s always up to a certain level and built on a genetic base within a solid kinematic structure. It’s an engineering approach to developing fast bowlers.
There are key points in the bowling sequence that I believe, if they are achieved, will help to bowl quickly (attractors). But as a complete sequence, there is no one-size-fits-all.
“There is only a perfect technique for every specific delivery in a specific context. The optimal technique is the optimal solution for a given delivery, within the individual limitations of the bowler.”
With this in mind, I designed the Pacelab Training System, which is based on science, research, and experience. It leaves no stone unturned in my quest to develop bowlers who can bowl faster based on their limiting factors.
The process begins with a full bowling profile, as seen above. The main focuses are as follows:
- Jump profile to measure the RSI (reactive strength index) and the discrepancies between various jumps. Careful attention needs to be paid to the discrepancies between the readings. The 10% rule provides benchmarks for the difference between the countermovement jump (CMJ) and the squat jump (SJ), the difference between the depth jump and CMJ, and finally— unique to Pacelab—the 10% variation between bowling with 1 kilogram of resistance on the 1080 Sprint and 6 kilograms of overload. If the ball velocity is less than 10% on the 6-kilogram resistance, based on data, it identifies the fast bowler is inefficient in their approach and relies too much on “grunt/effort and muscle” during delivery. They would be best served focusing on their top-end sprinting velocity in training to utilize more momentum into the “impact and delivery” zone of bowling.
- Strength profile to measure the DSI (dynamic strength index).
- Full technical assessment. Kino-sequence to highlight the positions and the shapes; ball velocity and the discrepancies between the heavy and light ball, which highlights where they sit on the static-spring continuum; contact grid to measure contact time; and 1080 Sprint analysis to measure the power, force, and speed of the full bowling sequence.
- Neurotype (Christian Thibaudeau) testing to identify the athlete’s sensitivity to certain neurotransmitters, which will dictate training methods and training program details.
- Anthropometrical assessment to measure the proportions of key parts of the body. This has an impact on the effectiveness of their technical model. There’s no point trying to become more of a hip-dominant leverage bowler if the arm span and crural index are not favorable.
Pacelab has introduced a new classification model into cricket, which is also being used by other sports. This is based on whether a bowler is a hip-dominant fascia/tendon-driven bowler or a knee-dominant bowler who could be muscle-driven or fascia/tendon-driven. They key is making sure their physicality matches their technical model.
I believe this classification is a game-changer in the world of athletic development. Based on data and research, the bowlers who have the ideal synergistic partnership are more likely to bowl quicker. In simple terms, knee-dominant bowlers need time to utilize the stretch shortening cycle (SSC).
They key aspect of the profile is to highlight their limiting factor, whether physical or technical, and design an intervention plan with the focus on hitting the key attractor sites of fast bowling. Based on research, these are:
- Hip lock
- Forefoot rocker on BFC
- Heel rocker on FFC
- Ankle stiffness
- Torso stiffness (on BFC especially)—no flexion
- Swing leg retraction/from above
- Crossed extensor reflex (remove, replace)
- Optimal length core (co-contract paraspinals)
- Braced front leg (co-contract, pre-contact)
- Balance at toe off impulse stride
- Arm split at eye-line—paraspinal co-contract
- Balanced head position
- Outside edge on BFC
- Stop it short (no automatic inhibition of RC)
The aim of every plan that follows the profiling is to condition the body to provide the athlete with the best possible structure to hit these attractors. It’s about providing a stable framework and designing exercises that will then explore the limit of technique. Once these conflicts are highlighted, I designed a system, based on Alex Natera’s “run specific isometric” model, called “skill stability paradigm.” We identify the flaw, isolate it, constrain it, overload it, and repeat the exercise. With respect for the process of motor learning, change can happen, and there’s a guarantee of a positive transfer of training.
Freelap USA: Elasticity is everything in sport, yet in cricket it’s not talked about enough. Can you expand on what you have learned with maximal strength, and how sometimes performance may not be augmented (outside of durability) as much as we wanted?
Steffan Jones: “According to Biscotti (2000), 72% of the elastic energy restitution action comes from tendons, 28% – from contractile elements of muscles.”2 Fast bowling is less about muscle and more about tendon and fascia.
“The real message is not that you don’t do maximal strength, or even that maximal strength doesn’t transfer. The real message is: how much do you need and once you’re there then what are you going to do?” –Derek Evely3
However, let me answer this question by stating I’m not anti-strength. My message is simple: Whatever we do in the gym has to support our on-field performance. When we begin to chase barbell numbers and develop what I call “the gym whiteboard syndrome,” then we are moving farther away from what’s needed.
Fast bowling relies on the body’s ability to control muscle slack. Adding a barbell on the back takes the slack out of the system artificially in training. The last time I looked, sport is not performed with a barbell on the shoulders! Sorry I’m being flippant, but hopefully people get the message.
Going from 1x body weight on back squat to 2x—another overly knee-dominant pattern—will not help you bowl faster. It may provide you with more of a stable athletic base, but it will not have a “direct positive transfer of training”—the ultimate goal, surely! Until S&C coaches are judged on on-field gains and not strength numbers, we will never know the true potential of human performance in all sports.Until S&C coaches are judged on on-field gains and not strength numbers, we will never know the true potential of human performance in all sports, says @SteffanJones105. Click To Tweet
Increasing max strength will provide a foundation for speed but there is a point of diminishing returns. It won’t do any harm up to the point of getting stronger, but it will mean energy, time, and effort are taken away from the true transfer of training method of speed, reactive, and technical work. The CNS can only tolerate a certain amount of volume.
The body is a complex biological system. It’s based on a bio-tensegrity model. The body is not made up of component parts with levers that have fulcrums and pivot points and joints that act on a single plane of motion. It’s one unit and needs to be trained with movement and coordination in mind.
“Body is a structure made up of muscles, bones, fascia, ligaments and tendons that are made strong by the unison of tensioned and compressed parts, its one interconnected system where the muscles and connective tissue provide continuous pull and the bones present discontinuous compression.” –Eugene Bleecker
The body searches for efficiency. The stiffness and tension we create in some areas will lend itself to doing more efficient work for less effort.
Ground contact times (GCT) are so short in the completion of the skill that maximum strength does not have time to positively impact the end goal. Yes, it is about mass specific force (MSF); however, you have 0.10-0.18 seconds to impart this force. When GCT is this short, the fascia system becomes the ultimate driver, not muscle. The stretch shortening cycle takes around 0.25 seconds to complete (store/stabilize/explode), so the ball has already gone!
When we hit the ground, our aim as fast bowlers is to impart as much ground reaction force (GRF) as possible relative to our mass (MSF) in as little amount of time as possible (GCT). When sequenced correctly, we create unified tension throughout the system via the fascial system and compression via the contractile elements of the muscle. That allows us to use the body as a unit to complete the delivery.
Maximum strength is a tractor. Maximum impact is a Ferrari. This is a different car; a different idea.
Bowling is 20% strength and 80% speed. Every training method I use always has this at the center of decision-making, whether isometric training, weighted ball bowling, or Lila movement Exogen suit bowling.
Freelap USA: You use the 1080 Sprint and contact grid to appraise bowling and profile athletes. Can you go into how you see ground contact times being a simple set of metrics for performance coaches?
Steffan Jones: Studies show that run-up speed is a KPI for bowling quickly.
“Bowlers who lack the ability to maintain momentum through the full sequence will never truly reach their pace potential.” –King, Worthington, and Ranson, 20154
“The HP group was able to bowl significantly faster than the AM group and had a higher center of mass speed at back foot impact.” –Middleton, Mills, Elliott, and Alderson, 20165
Fast bowling is largely about powerful crossed extensor function at the hip (powerful reflex of contralateral hip flexion and extension), torso stability on delivery, and ankle stiffness at ground contact. Pacelab research has indicated that there is a very direct relationship between the fastest bowlers and maximal force ability within the 0.10- to 0.15-second window in each key node of the sequence, these being the impulse stride, back foot contact, and front foot contact.
This shows that no matter how well-intentioned a training program is, unless there is some aspect of it that is dedicated to improving specific strength and rate of force development, results will be limited.No matter how well-intentioned a training program is, unless some aspect of it is dedicated to improving specific strength and rate of force development, results will be limited. Click To Tweet
How do I know? Testing using a combination of the 1080 Sprint and Muscle Lab contact grid has provided data over the last three years. The numbers don’t lie.
The profiling system has shown us that 20-30% of ball velocity comes from the speed of the approach/run-up. The faster you run in, the more potential you have to carry that momentum into front foot contact (FFC). Force at FFC is a key determinant of ball velocity.
In testing using the 1080 Sprint for fast bowling, when the numbers are higher on the run-up speed in m/s and power is highest in watts, the ball velocity was always higher.
The most important direction for a fast bowler isn’t the vertical, but rather the anterior/posterior direction. Here is a direct quote from a recent baseball study6:
“Force imparted by the stride leg against the direction of the throw appears to contribute strongly to achieve maximum throwing velocity.”
The fact that the stride leg is applying force AGAINST the direction of the delivery means that this force is being applied in a posterior direction. The back leg keeps the momentum going toward the batter in an anterior direction, but the bowler must “slam on the brakes” and stop the momentum by applying force backward with the front leg—negative acceleration.
However, differences exist between pitching and bowling. In my opinion, careful differentiation needs to be made between deceleration, controlling collision, and maintaining momentum. Due to the added momentum from a run-up, the key to bowling quickly is maintaining as much momentum into the FFC through to the release point. There should never be a sudden stop! Swing leg retraction, claw back, and the feed forward mechanism guarantee transfer of energy through the whole kinetic chain, from the floor to the ball.
Ground contact times and flight times highlight the force management capability of the athlete and also their dominance. Knee-dominant bowlers spend longer on the ground in order to access the SSC; hip-dominant bowlers spend less time due the elastic capacity of their fascia system. The contact grid has highlighted the dominance of bowlers and also the direction of their intervention program. The ultimate aim is to match up anthropometry and technique.
Both BFC and FFC depend on putting force into the ground in the shortest time possible.
Freelap USA: Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) is one of your solutions for athletes, and you spend a lot of time using isometrics. How has this helped your rehabilitation and injury reduction programs over the years?
Steffan Jones: Isometric training has been around for many years. Its popularity comes and goes based on a particular S&C who endorses it at that time, such as Bob Hoffman in the ’60s and ’70s; my mentor Christian Thibaudeau, Inno-Sport and DB Hammer in the early 2000s; and recently Triphasic Training with Cal Dietz, Matt Van Dyke, and Max Schmarzo.
Isometrics has waved in and out of popularity because it has the potential, when used correctly with the correct neurotype, to build enormous strength. However, it’s difficult to measure progress when pushing against an immovable object or holding a heavy weight for an allocated time. How can you quantify progress?Isometrics has waved in and out of popularity because it has the potential, when used correctly with the correct neurotype, to build enormous strength, says @SteffanJones105. Click To Tweet
This leads to many athletes and coaches having a reluctance to use it. However, isometrics form the foundation of all I do with my fast bowling system. It is the base that all other methods are built upon.
The two most important muscle contractions for fast bowlers are the eccentric and the isometric. Due to the speed of the movement and short ground contact times, concentric contractions don’t really have time to impact a performance.
“Isometric training as a potentiation tool. A bowler can recruit over 5% more muscle fibers (motor units) in a maximum isometric contraction and a person can produce up to 15% more muscle force isometrically. So, it’s a huge tool for maximum muscle activation.”–Christian Thibaudeau
Isometric contractions serve two functions in fast bowling: stability and transfer of energy. Key muscle groups in the kinematic sequence of fast bowling have different roles to play during each delivery (execution of the skill). So, what are iso’s?
Simply put, isometrics refers to exercises where the muscles produce force without movement.
- Yielding isometric
- Overcoming isometric
- Functional isometric
- EQIs (eccentric quasi isometric training)
The Pacelab training system uses isometric training in two ways: general athletic development and the foundation of the skill-stability paradigm (SSP). The SSP is a specific, strength-focused, technical re-mapping system that identifies, isolates, constrains, and overloads movements that are key to bowling quickly.
I believe there are seven ways to change movement. Isometric training fulfills 90% of the criteria.
- Stabilize the attractors.
- Manipulate TUT (time under tension).
- Create feel.
- Feed the mistake.
- Overload the movement (density/volume/intensity/variability).
- Change the goal.
- Add variability (complex/overload and underload an implement/chaos/fatigue).
To develop a new “motor engram” or simply stabilize a current technical model, the skill needs to be performed in different conditions. Isometrics provides this change of stimulus.
During an isometric co-contraction, an agonist-antagonist pair will contract with the same amount of torque around the same joint. Due to the equivalent torques being applied, a net force of zero is achieved, and thus, no motion will occur at the limb.
The focus on isometric contraction locks key nodes of the bowling action in place. It’s like a “straitjacket” around the agonist and antagonist muscles around a joint, training the co-contractors and eliminating muscle slack around these attractor sites.
You need to stress the key positions with skill-stability training. It’s a system I developed that respects the process of motor learning. It’s more likely that the changes to a bowler’s technique are relatively small, so doing something similar to what you’ve been doing will have little or no effect. The skill-stability paradigm, with its combination of specific strength and corrective strength training, is the answer, and for a bowling performance coach it is essential to create permanent change.
With regard to EMS (electrical myostimulation), I use it primarily as a performance enhancer not as a rehabilitation method. As a player, I used it for both purposes, but as a coach, I haven’t had the need for rehabilitation. The CNS can only tolerate so much stress, so during periods of high-speed skill focus I use EMS to provide the stimulation of the FT fibers that I would normally get from more “traditional” ways. It is used sporadically for a 1- to 2-week “boost” after 3-4 weeks of max strength lifting. It’s very much based on the work of Charlie Francis.
The “all or none” law of muscle recruitment states that all of the fibers in the unit will contract with maximum force, and the “size principle” highlights the fact that the ST fibers will always contract first. So, in fact, the fast bowlers who have more type 2A fibers will, in effect, never really benefit from the stimulation of the type 2B in a high-velocity skill like fast bowling. This is also a key difference between a knee-dominant and a hip-dominant bowler. However, with EMS, FT fibers are the ones hit first.
According to Charlie Francis, “ST fibre is always recruited first in a feed-back response calling up FT—but it is surpassed earlier in the action by FT fibre due to its much faster Recruitment Velocity in explosive or very strong EMS contractions.”
Due to the different nature of muscles, EMS is a great method to spot and target key areas of the fast bowling sequence. It is essential to find the optimal frequency, as fast and slow muscle fibers respond differently to the same frequency. Have a key purpose for each session: recovery, FT fiber recruitment, or improving circulation. Like all methods, it’s a tool used when circumstances and individual differences determine.
I’m currently experimenting with EMS as a “co-contraction” method used during the skill-stability session. However, the timing of the contractions on the agonist needs to be synchronized with the relaxation of the antagonist at the correct time in the exercise, respecting the “law of reciprocal inhibition.” I think this will be a great method, but it needs to be understood and respected to avoid “neural confusion.”
Freelap USA: Baseball in the U.S. benefits from the cross-pollination of new ideas and more international experts. If you had to change baseball with pitcher preparation, what do you think you would do differently?
Steffan Jones: I believe there are key kinetic differences that exist between pitching and fast bowling; however, there are key kinematic similarities. Yes, due to the static nature of the skill, pitching relies more on MSF and max strength. Unlike fast bowling, which is more akin to sprinting and triple jump, pitching is more about rhythm, coordination, approach velocity, the reflexive system, the vestibular system, and the fascia system.
The kinetic chain and sequential acceleration developed from hip/shoulder separation is the ultimate determinant of pitching velocity; whereas in bowling, the human body doesn’t have the same amount of time to guarantee separation. It is essential, but not an attractor. I do believe that baseball could benefit from understanding and utilizing the natural force multiplying quality of the fascial system.
There are some brilliant minds in baseball, from Eugene Bleecker, Matt Daniels, and Eric Cressey to Randy Sullivan at the Florida Baseball Ranch. I learn from these guys every day. However, without prejudice or wanting to offend, I believe the vast majority of strength coaches would still prefer to spend time heavy weight training instead of training the fascial lines, the anterior and posterior sling. I may be incorrect, but that’s what is needed in any rotational sport. We are rotational and torque-driven beings training in a different plane in the weight room because, as strength coaches, we are ultimately judged on “strength numbers”—there needs to be a mindset shift in all sports across the world.
The kinetic chain in overarm throwing/bowling is initiated by the heavy proximal
segments (the trunk), followed by the lighter distal segments (the arm segments), resulting in the distal segments rotating faster than the proximal segments.7
Even though there is greater potential to utilize the SSC in pitching, there is still more of a need to respect tendon and fascia training. Knee dominance and hip dominance also exist in pitching. I think the sport would benefit massively from using my skill-stability paradigm, with a focus on the benefits of isometric training along with the classification system of knee- or hip-dominant throwers.Even though there is greater potential to utilize the SSC in pitching, there is still more of a need to respect tendon and fascia training, says @SteffanJones105. Click To Tweet
Your knee-dominant thrower will need to be stronger, as flexion in the knee and sitting back to build up concentric energy will rely greatly on the SSC and the power absorption/propulsion quality of the muscles. They will need more compliance to “sink” into it. However, the lankier/thinner and more tendon-driven hip-dominant thrower will rely on stiffness of the rear leg and power transference of the center of mass into the front foot block. A shorter coupling time is essential for them.
The finer detail of the skill-stability paradigm has begun to impact MLB coaches, with more of them looking at how I focus on the back-foot contact in fast bowling and bracing of the front leg. I think bracing of the front leg to allow internal collision and one pivot point/fulcrum at the hip is important for throwing, but it doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. I may be wrong? Baseball would thrive with the cross-pollination quality of the Pacelab System.
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1. Kraaijenhof, Henk. Methodology of Training in the 22nd Century: An Updated Approach to Training and Coaching the Elite Athlete. 2019. Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
2. Verkhoshansky, Natalia. “Shock Method and Plyometrics: Updates and an In-Depth Examination.”
3. Evely, Derek. Bondarchuk System course, 2019.
4. King, Mark., Worthington, P.J., and Ranson, Craig. “Does maximising ball speed in cricket fast bowling necessitate higher ground reaction forces?” Journal of Sports Sciences. 2015;34(8):1–6.
5. Middleton, Kane J., Mills, Peter Michael, Elliott, Bruce C., and Alderson, Jacqueline A. “The association between lower limb biomechanics and ball release speed in cricket fast bowlers: A comparison of high-performance and amateur competitors.” Sports Biomechanics. 2016;15(3):1–13.
6. McNally, Michael P., Borstad, John D., Oñate, James A., and Chaudhari, Ajit M.W. “Stride Leg Ground Reaction Forces Predict Throwing Velocity in Adult Recreational Baseball Pitchers.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2015;29(10):2708–2715.
7. Chu, Samuel K., Jayabalan, Prakash, Kibler, W. Ben, and Press, Joel. “The Kinetic Chain Revisited: New Concepts on Throwing Mechanics and Injury.” PM&R Journal. 2016;8(3):S69–S77.