The Olympic champion and world record holder takes us inside an event that requires a lot of power but also a lot of skill
The idea of seeing who can throw a heavy object the farthest has been around for thousands of years. Homer mentions Greek soldiers holding stone-throwing competitions, while in the Middle Ages the military was known to throw cannonballs.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the shot put has been a part of the modern Olympics since the first Games, in 1896.
The men throw a shot of 16 lbs (7.26 kg) while the women compete with an 8.5 lb (4 kg) shot. The shot is thrown from a circle with a diameter of 2.135 m (seven feet) and a stop sign 10 cm (four inches) high in the front. The circle is normally made of concrete – or wood if it is an indoor competition.
It is an event with a very simple outcome but, as in many sporting disciplines, mastering the nuance of technique is essential. Few have been better at the shot put than Olympic champion and world record holder Ryan Crouser. AW sitting with him as he explained the discipline:
How would you explain the shot put to someone who has never seen it?
I would say go bowling, pick up the heaviest bowling ball (16 pounds) and hit a basketball court. Stand on the free throw line, turn around and try to make a three quarter shot with this bowling ball. If you did that, you wouldn’t break the shot put world record, but you would be close to a medal in a major championship. I think that puts into perspective what we are doing there.
The best shot putters are very good athletes with a good sense of balance, are able to move well, and are able to sprint. Having a good sense of rhythm is also important. If you have someone who moves quickly in a straight line, that’s not enough, because you also need to be aware of how you move in rotation.
It’s a misconception that this is roughly how much you can bench press. Being a versatile athlete and the way you move are important.
Being taller, as far as build goes, helps. If you’re lean and built like a distance runner with narrow shoulders and lighter bone, it’s hard to throw the shot far. But I would say it’s not decisive because when I was younger I was tall and skinny. I would say it is easier to get bigger and stronger than to develop natural athleticism.
The rules state that the stroke must start on the neck, end near the neck and be released above the shoulder. It has to be more of a posed, close movement, which is biomechanically a much safer way to apply force. Think about how much you can bench press compared to the weight of a ball you could throw.
You are not allowed to drop below the shoulder or outside the shoulder as you would in a normal throwing motion, like you would throw a baseball or cricket ball. I think it’s mainly to protect beginner athletes because you don’t want to make a throwing motion with a 16lb ball or you won’t have much elbow or shoulder left!
What is a foul pitch?
A throwing foul – when the ball goes under the shoulder, turning it into a throwing motion – is very unusual at the elite level. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an athlete sanctioned for a throwing error. You have to throw, stay balanced, and get out of the back half of the circle.
Probably 99% of fouls happen when an athlete comes off the front half, either by accidentally stepping on the toeboard or being off balance. After a bad throw, an athlete will often intentionally step forward because they don’t want their bad throw measured.
Two methods: slide or rotate
Sliding is when you sort of go from the back to the front of the circle, a very speed-oriented technique. The spin is where you make a full turn from the back to the front of the ring.
For the slide, which was the dominant style of the 1960s, you start with your back facing the plinth and do a single sliding motion across, pushing off your right foot. You then land on the same foot before using your left foot in the power position and kicking the ball.
For a long time, this was the classic, prototypical method. In the 1970s, a few athletes began applying a disc-style spinning motion to the stroke, with varying success. It’s a much more complex move and it probably wasn’t until 2016 that the rotation method became dominant in major leagues.
I used both methods. I used sliding until the age of 18, so I understand, not my limits, but the possibilities, because I launched with sliding, then I switched to pirouette. I think I could still have success with the glide but the potential for spinning is greater.
Technique, speed or strength?
For me, at this point, it’s a game of thumbs. Technical gains are most important in terms of distance gain. I would describe speed and strength as limiting factors. If you are not strong enough to master the movements it can be detrimental and if you cannot go fast enough it can also be detrimental.
If you have established base speed and base strength, then technique is the optimization factor based on that base speed and base strength. I would advise any young pitcher to focus on technique. For me, at the elite level, I always try to keep improving my technique but also try to elevate my baseline.
Is size a help or a hindrance?
I am tall, which can be an advantage and a disadvantage. From a physical point of view, being tall can be an advantage because you have longer levers and therefore more time to apply force to the shot.
The downside of being tall is that, to me, the circle is very small – just over a foot shorter than the disc ring. This is probably why you see more taller athletes throwing the discus rather than shooting.
Take Tomas Walsh or Joe Kovacs – they can be very dynamic in the ring. I can’t have a dynamic sprint technique – I have to have a technique that’s very conservative, which focuses on how I keep my 6-foot-7 self from getting wrong at the front of the circle. I’ve spent most of my career finding a technique that works for me.
I do four throwing workouts a week in the offseason and will add another to go to five during the season and I do four or five lifting workouts during the week. Also, I will have sprint, plyometrics and medicine ball training mixed together.
The normal format is three throws, then three more throws in reverse order. The thing to understand about throwing is that your best throw doesn’t happen when you’re putting in 100% effort, but rather between 80-85%.
I try, but I don’t try absolutely as hard as I can and I don’t try to force it to happen. I keep the body relaxed, which facilitates technical execution and keeps you in the right mental state. Her maximum effort but relaxed and letting the event happen.
There are athletes who will skip, say, the fifth round to really focus on the sixth. Personally, I like to complete all six throws, although the effort can vary slightly between throws, depending on the goal of each round. In the first round, I would probably throw at 75-80% effort to get a grade, to guarantee qualification for the last three throws. This is what some would call a safety throw.
After that, I would increase the intensity. So I might start with a 75% throw and then go to 80-85% for the next three throws. Then it’s about assessing if I can keep pushing that and throwing a little harder or am I already at a good level and just sticking with the 85% and just trying to let a big throw happen?
It is advantageous to be in front after three pitches in order to be the last pitcher of the last round. Before the last lap, if someone is ahead of me, I know I will have at least one more attempt to improve on that.
It’s important to have the last throw in the last round – it means you’re the only athlete who has his fate in his hands, because you know what you have to answer.
I like being the last pitcher. It either means I know the competition is already won, which is a great feeling, but it’s probably the best shot put feeling to produce your best last-round throw when you need it to win.
» This article first appeared in the January issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here
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