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Are There Any Differences in Physical Fitness and Throwing Velocity Between National and International Elite Female Handball Players?

Granados, Cristina1; Izquierdo, Mikel2; Ibáñez, Javier2; Ruesta, Maite2; Gorostiaga, Esteban M.2

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: March 2013 - Volume 27 - Issue 3 - p 723–732
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825fe955
Original Research
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Granados,C, Izquierdo,M, Ibáñez,J, Ruesta,M, and Gorostiaga,EM. Are there any differences in physical fitess and throwing velocity between national and international elite female handball players? J Strength Cond Res 27(3): 723–732, 2013—This study compared physical characteristics in a 2003 national elite female team (NE; n = 16; fourth in the Spanish Championship) to the same team when it reached international level in 2009 (IE; n = 14; winner of the Spanish Championship and the European Handball Cup). Body height, body mass, body fat, and fat-free mass, 1-repetition maximum bench press (1RMBP), vertical jumping height, handball throwing velocity, power-load relationship of the leg and arm extensor muscles, 5- and 15-m sprint running time, and running endurance were measured in the second competitive mesocycle of a season. Results revealed that, compared with NE, IE players presented similar values in body mass, body height, sprint running time, handball throwing velocity, and jumping, but higher values (p < 0.01–0.05) in age (17%), 1RMBP (15%), power-load relationship of the arm (16%), and leg (10%) extensors, and endurance running velocities (7%). Significant correlations (r = 0.71–0.72, p < 0.05) were observed in IE, but not in NE, between individual values of standing throw and individual values of power at 30% of 1RMBP, and individual values of power at 60% of body mass during half-squat actions. The present results suggest that more experienced, powerful and aerobically conditioned players are at an advantage in international-level female handball. The ball throwing velocity of international elite female handball players depends on their ability to produce muscle power at submaximal loads with the upper and lower extremities. However, in lower-level players, this depends on the level of performance at maximal strength of the upper extremities.

1Physical Education Department, Faculty of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain

2Studies, Research and Sport Medicine Center, Government of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain

Address correspondence to Cristina Granados, cristina.granados@ehu.es.

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Introduction

Handball is an intermittent, high-intensity sport played worldwide (19 million players in >150 international federations) that places heavy emphasis on running, jumping, and throwing (19). It requires substantial strength levels to hit, block, push, turn, change pace and hold during games. As a result, it has been argued that high levels of strength and muscle power and aerobic capacity are important for successful participation in elite handball leagues (5,6).

Two studies compared anthropometric and physiological characteristics between elite and lower-level female players. In 1 study performed in Poland in the 1980s, Jastrzebski (13) found that absolute peak power and work production during a nonspecific cycling physiological test (e.g., Wingate test) were approximately 25% higher in senior national elite than in junior regional level female handball players. In a study performed 8 years ago in our laboratory (6), we found that national elite female handball players (NE, ranked fourth in the Spanish handball championship in the last season and qualified for the European Handball Cup [EHF] during the on-going season) presented higher values in body height, fat-free mass (FFM), absolute maximal strength and muscle power output at submaximal loads during bench press, and half-squat actions (20–40%), sprint and endurance running performance, and throwing velocity than amateur female handball players. In addition, upper extremity maximal strength was associated with throwing velocity, suggesting that handball velocity values in female handball players depend more on maximal strength than on the ability to move low loads at high velocities during elbow extension actions (6).

Six years after our first study, the same team, which included only 3 players from the original version, reached international world-class level because it won the Spanish handball championship and the EHF. It was therefore of interest to examine if the increased competition level observed over the years in this team was (or was not) associated with a concomitant improvement in anthropometric, physiological, or handball throwing characteristics. Therefore, the aim of this study was to investigate which fitness, anthropometric, and specific throwing tests could differentiate between international and NEs. Second, as found in handball male and female athletes of different levels, some muscle power values of the upper and lower extremities could be related to handball throwing velocity. It was also of interest, therefore, to see if the relationships between selected upper and lower extremity maximal strength or power production and throwing velocity previously observed in amateur and national elite female players (6) are also observed in international elite players.

The recording of the current physical and physiological characteristics of world-class elite female handball players has scientific interest and direct practical applications because it is very rare due to limited access to such subjects, given the finite nature of the population, and because it can offer a comprehensive picture of the upper limits of the adaptations made during long-term training in this particular sport. This should help to highlight the limiting factors on a specific sport such as handball. Furthermore, the direct practical application of the study is that this knowledge could assist coaches to make evidence-based practice decisions because it provides new normative physical data, can be used for handball player selection and for profiling players. Finally, these data can be used by national elite and subelite handball coaches and conditioners to highlight the demands of higher-level competitions and for the design of training sessions, which may assist players in the transition to elite competition.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

A comparative study was conducted to determine if anthropometric and physical fitness parameters are different in an elite female handball team over 2 different competitive seasons, in both 2003 as a national elite team (NE), and in 2009 as an international elite team (IE). These groups of handball players were tested in the same period of the season and compared with an analysis of variance (ANOVA) to determine if anthropometric, physical fitness and throwing velocity parameters distinguished any of the groups. If differences existed, this would tend to indicate the relative importance of these parameters toward progress to the elite professional level. The test-retest intraclass correlation coefficients for the measurement of variables used in this study were >0.91, and the coefficients of variation (CVs) ranged from 0.9% to 7.3%.

Data were collected to test the following hypotheses. First, we hypothesized that international elite female handball players (IEs) should present higher values in absolute maximal strength and power output during bench press and half-squat actions, sprint and endurance performance and in throwing velocity than NEs. Second, considering that the anthropometric profile is an important selective factor for success when passing from amateur to national elite level in women's handball (6), it was hypothesized that world-class female handball players should present higher FFM than do lower-level players. Third, as was observed in lower-level female handball players (6,10,21), significant correlations between maximal isometric or dynamic strength values of the upper extremity extensor muscles and throwing velocity should be observed in IE and NE players.

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Subjects

One national elite female handball team in 2003 (NE, n = 16; age: 23.5 ± 4 years) and the same team when it reached the international level in 2009 (IE, n = 14; age: 27.0 ± 3 years), participated in this study. Only 3 players of the 2003 team remained from the 2009 team. The test battery was carried out in April 2003 (NE) and 2009 (IE), during the second competitive mesocycle. The NE was considered a national elite handball team because it finished fourth in the Spanish handball championship in the previous season and it qualified for the EHF during the on-going season. The IE was considered an international elite world-class level handball team because (a) it was the winner of the Spanish handball championship and of EHF during the on-going season, and (b) European nations had won all the medals in the last 3 previous World Handball Championships. The players underwent physical examination before commencing the study, and each was cleared of any medical disorders that might limit their full participation in the study.

The physical characteristics of the subjects are presented in Table 1. Some of the physical fitness and throwing velocity data of the NE team were published in longitudinal (7) and cross-sectional studies (6).

Table 1

Table 1

The subjects and coaches were informed in detail about the experimental procedures and the possible risks and benefits of the project. Informed consent was obtained from all the players who were familiarized with the study procedures before actual testing. The project was approved by the Institutional Review Committee of the Instituto Navarro de Deporte y Juventud and carried out according to the Declaration of Helsinki.

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Procedures

Testing Schedule

The subjects were carefully familiarized with the testing protocol, because they had been previously assessed for training prescription purposes. All the players were assessed on the same day, at the same time of the day, and the tests were performed in the same order. Testing was conducted over 3 separate sessions separated by at least 2 days. In the first session, each subject performed a sprint and endurance running tests. In the second session, each subject was tested for anthropometrical measurements, and maximal and explosive strength and muscle power. In the third session, penalty and 3-step running-throwing velocities were measured. The players were instructed to refrain from strenuous exercise on the day before testing and to avoid smoking and drinking alcohol, tea, and coffee on the day of testing. They were also asked not to exercise in the 3 hours leading up to the test and consume their normal pretraining diet, which was standardized for each testing session. Testing was integrated into weekly training schedules.

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Anthropometry

Height (meters), weight (kilograms), body fat (percent), and fat-free mass (kilograms) were measured in each subject. Height and weight measurements were made on a calibrated platform scale (Año Sayol, Barcelona, Spain) with an accuracy of 0.01 kg and 0.001 m, respectively. Body mass index (BMI) was calculated from body mass (BM) and body height (kilograms per meter square). Percentage of body fat was calculated from measurements of skinfold thickness (12). Fat-free mass (kilograms) was calculated as the total BM minus fat mass.

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Sprint and Endurance Running Test

After a nonstandardized 15-minute warm-up period that included low-intensity running, several acceleration runs and stretching exercises, the subjects undertook three 15-m sprints on an indoor court separated by 90-second rest periods. During the 90-second recovery period, the subjects walked back to the starting line. The recording of running time was done using photocell gates (Newtest OY, Oulu, Finland) placed 0.4 m above the ground, with an accuracy of 0.001 seconds. The subjects commenced the sprint when ready from a standing start 0.5 m behind the line. Stance for the start was consistent for each subject. The time was automatically activated as the subject passed the first gate at the 0-m mark and split times were recorded at 5 and 15 m. The run with the lowest time was selected for further analysis.

The endurance running test was performed 5 minutes after the end of the sprints on an indoor court. Each subject performed a 4-stage submaximal intermittent progressive running test around the handball court (40 × 20 m), with a 3-minute rest between each run. The running velocities for the four stages were 8.5, 10, 11.5, and 13 km·h−1. Time for each stage was 5 minutes. To assure a constant velocity for each running stage, subjects were instructed to run at an even pace. They maintained their pace by listening to an audio signal connected to a preprogramed computer (Balise Temporelle, Bauman, Switzerland). During the test, heart rate was recorded every 15 seconds (Sportester Polar, Kempele, Finland) and averaged for the last 60 seconds of each stage. Immediately after each exercise stage, capillary blood samples for the determination of lactate concentrations were obtained from hyperemic earlobe. Samples for whole blood lactate determination (100 μl) were deproteinized, stored at 4° C, and analysed (YSI, 1500 Sport L-Lactate Analyzer, Yellow Springs, OH, USA). The blood lactate analyzer was calibrated after every fifth blood sample dose with 3 known controls (5, 15, and 30 mmol·L−1). Individual data points for the exercise blood lactate values were plotted as a continuous function against time. The exercise lactate curve was fitted with a second degree polynomic function (Y = AX2 + BX + C), X being: running velocity; Y: blood lactate concentration, and A, B, and C: the individual polynomial constants. From this equation describing the exercise blood lactate curve, the velocity associated with a blood lactate concentration of 3 mmol·L−1 (V3) was interpolated. The submaximal velocity associated with a given absolute blood lactate concentration has been shown to be an important determinant of endurance performance capacity (24).

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Jumping Test

The jumping test was conducted on an indoor court with a contact platform and consisted of 4 maximal jumps with arms swinging (Newtest OY, Oulu, Finland). The subjects were asked to jump as high as possible. The test consisted of performing a maximal vertical jump with a preparatory countermovement. The subjects started from an upright standing position on a contact platform and were allowed to bend their knees as quickly as possible before starting to push upward. To avoid unmeasurable work, horizontal and lateral displacements were minimized, the subjects were instructed to land on the contact platform in a position similar to that of take-off. Arms could be moved freely throughout the test, and knee angular displacement was standardized so that the subjects were required to bend. The jumping height was calculated from the flight time (2). Two sets of 2 maximal jumps were recorded, interspersed with approximately 10-second rest between jumps and 90-second rest between sets. The best reading was used for further analysis.

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Maximal Strength and Muscle Power Tests

Three tests were performed: maximal strength of the upper extremities and power-load relationships of the arm and leg extensor muscles. The tests were performed in a Smith machine in which a barbell was attached to both ends, with linear bearings on 2 vertical bars allowing only vertical movements. Maximal strength of the upper extremity was assessed with a 1-repetition concentric maximum bench press action (1RMBP). Bench press (elbow extension) was chosen because it seems most specific to the overhand throwing technique (4). The bar was positioned 1 cm above the subject's chest and supported by the bottom stops of the measurement device. The subject was instructed to perform a purely concentric action from the starting position, maintaining the shoulders in a 90° abducted position to ensure consistency of the shoulder and elbow joints throughout the testing movement (11,17). No bouncing or arching of the back was allowed. Warm-up consisted of a set of 5 repetitions at loads of 40–60% of the perceived maximum. Thereafter, 4–5 separate single attempts were performed until the subject was unable to reach the full elbow extension. The last acceptable extension with the highest possible load was determined as 1RM. The rest period between attempts was always 2 minutes.

The power-load relationship of the arm extensor muscles was tested for the bench press, using the relative loads of 30, 45, and 60% of 1RMBP. The power-load relationship of the leg extensor muscles was tested for the half-squat in the same Smith machine, using relative loads of 60, 80, 100, and 125% of BM. In the half-squat the shoulders were in contact with a bar and the starting knee angle was 90° (11). On command the subject performed a concentric leg extension ascending from the flexed position to reach the full knee extension of 180° against the resistance determined by the weight plates added to both ends of the bar. The trunk was kept as straight as possible. The subjects were allowed to use a weight training belt. Warm-up consisted of a set of 5 repetitions at loads of 40–60% of BM. In all the power measurements of the arm and leg extensor muscles, the subjects were instructed to move the loads as fast as possible. Two testing actions were recorded and the best reading (with the highest velocity) was taken for further analysis. The time period of rest between each trial and set was always 1.5 minutes.

During the upper and lower extremity test actions, bar displacement, average velocity (meters per second) and mean power (watts) were recorded by linking a rotary encoder to the end of the bar. The rotary encoder recorded the position and direction of the bar with an accuracy of 0.0002 m. Customized software (JLML I+D, Madrid, Spain) was used to calculate the power output for each repetition of the half-squat and bench press performed over the whole range of motion. Power curves were plotted using the average power attained over the whole range of movement as the most representative mechanical parameter associated with performance in the half-squat (i.e., hip, knee, and ankle joints) and bench press (i.e., elbow and shoulder joints) exercises.

Averaged indexes of muscle power output with all absolute loads examined were calculated separately in NE and IE, for the bench press (with loads from 30 to 60% of 1RMBP) and half-squat (with loads from 60 to 125% of BM) actions. For comparison purposes, the ratio between absolute average power output index during bench press actions and the absolute average power output index during half-squat actions was calculated in each group as follows:

Maximal strength and power output values were expressed in absolute values, relative to BM and relative to BM raised to the power of

. This dimensional scaling was used because it has been suggested that whole body muscular strength measures will vary in proportion to

(25). In all neuromuscular performance tests, strong verbal encouragement was given to each subject to motivate them to perform each test action as maximally and as rapidly as possible. The reproducibility of the measurements of maximal strength and muscle power output have showed intraclass correlation coefficients ranging from 0.65 to 0.95, CVs between 4.7 and 7.9% and (r) from 0.57 to 0.98, respectively (11).

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Handball Throwing Test

Specific explosive strength production was evaluated on an indoor handball court, in 2 situations: a standing throw (penalty throw) and a 3-step running throw. After a 10-minute warm-up, the subjects were instructed to throw a handball (mass 370 g, circumference 52 cm) as fast as possible through an official goal, using one hand and their own technique. In the standing throw, the foot was in contact with the floor behind the line 7 m from the goal (penalty mark); in the 3-step running throw, the players were allowed to do a preparatory run, limited to 3 regular steps before releasing the ball, behind the line 9 m from the goal. The recording of throwing time was done with an accuracy of 0.001 seconds by using 2 tripods containing 5 (first tripod, range 1.49–2.10 m above the ground) and 4 (second tripod, range 1.37–1.89 m above the ground) vertically distributed photocells (Newtest OY, Oulu, Finland), placed across the flight path of the ball, in front of the left post of the goal. The tripods were located 3.4 and 6.4 m from the penalty mark. In each tripod, the photocells were separated by a distance that allowed 2 photocells to be triggered simultaneously by the ball. To simulate a real handball game action, the players were told to throw to the upper right corner of the goal with maximal velocity and were allowed to put resin on their hands to throw the ball. The time was automatically activated as the handball passed the photocells of the first array and was stopped when the handball passed the photocells of the second array. Average throwing velocity was calculated from the time and the distance (3 m) covered by the ball.

The coaches supervised the entire throwing test to ensure that the subjects were using the right handball technique. For every type of throw, each subject performed trials until 3 correct throws were recorded, up to a maximum of 3 sets of 3 consecutive throws. A 1-2 minute rest elapsed between sets of throws and 10–15 seconds elapsed between 2 throws of the same set. For motivation, athletes were immediately informed of their performance. The throw with the highest average ball velocity was selected for further analysis.

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Statistical Analyses

Standard statistical methods were used for the calculation of means SDs. Differences between the international elite (IE) and national elite (NE) players for the variables measured were evaluated using 1-way ANOVA, with Newman-Keuls post hoc comparisons. Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients (r) were used to determine correlations between throwing velocity and maximal strength and power values. Statistical power for this study ranged from 0.69 to 0.95 in this study. The p ≤ 0.05 criterion was used for establishing statistical significance.

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Results

Physical Characteristics

The physical characteristics of the handball players are presented in Table 1. The IE team had a higher age (17%, p < 0.05) and training experience (16 ± 7 vs. 12.7 ± 7 years) than the NE team. There were no differences in body height, BM, percent body fat, FFM, and BMI (kilograms per meter square) between the teams.

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Sprint and Endurance Running Test

No significant differences were exhibited between IE and NE players in maximal sprint running time for 5 m (1.06 ± 0.05 and 1.08 ± 0.05 m·s−1 for IE and NE, respectively) and 15 m (2.57 ± 0.1 and 2.61 ± 0.1 m·s−1 for IE and NE, respectively). The results of endurance running test are presented in Table 2. During the endurance running test, average blood lactate concentrations were lower (p < 0.05–0.01) in IE than in NE at all running velocities tested, whereas heart rate was lower at 8.5 km·h−1. Mean running velocity, which elicited a blood lactate concentration of 3 mmol·L−1 (V3), was 7% higher (p < 0.05) in IE (11.9 km·h−1) than in NE (11.1 km·h−1).

Table 2

Table 2

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Jumping Test

No difference was observed in jumping height between IE and NE (35.1 ± 3 and 37.6 ± 4 cm for IE and NE, respectively).

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Maximal Strength and Muscle Power Output

The maximal 1RMBP values of 59.6 ± 7.4 kg in IE were 15% greater (p < 0.01) than those of 51.6 ± 6.7 kg recorded for NE. This difference was maintained (p < 0.01) when 1RMBP was expressed relative to BM (0.86 ± 0.11 and 0.75 ± 0.09 kg·kg−1, respectively) or to BM raised to the power of 0.67 (3.47 ± 0.39 and 3.03 ± 0.33 kg·kg−0.67, respectively). The shape of the average absolute bench press power-load curves differed between the groups (Figure 1). At relative loads of 30 and 45% of 1RMBP, average power output at the upper extremities was higher (29 and 15%, respectively) in IE (p < 0.05–0.001) than in NE. Average power output index at loads from 30 to 60% of 1RMBP in IE (249 ± 39 W) was 16% higher (p < 0.05) than in NE (214 ± 34 W). This difference (p < 0.05) was maintained when average power output index was expressed relative to BM (3.63 ± 0.48 and 3.09 ± 0.46 W·kg−1, respectively) or to BM raised to the power of 0.67 (0.88 ± 0.11 and 0.75 ± 0.09 W·kg−0.67, respectively). The shape of the average absolute concentric half-squat power-load curves also differed between groups (Figure 2A). At absolute loads of 60 and 100% of BM, average power output of the lower extremities was higher (9% and 12%, respectively) in IE (p < 0.050.01) than in NE. Average power output index at loads from 60 to 125% of BM for IE (510 ± 66 W) was 10% higher (p < 0.05) than in NE (465 ± 60 W). The ratio between absolute average power output index during bench press actions and absolute average power output index during half-squat actions (bench press average power output index × 100/half-squat average power output index) was not different between groups (49 ± 7 and 44 ± 7%, for IE and NE, respectively).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

When muscle power output of the concentric half-squat actions was expressed relative to BM (watts per kilogram), to BM raised to the power of 0.67 (W·kg−0.67) and to FFM (W·kg−1) the differences between IE and NE disappeared (Figure 2B). Likewise, when average power output index at all loads examined of half-squat actions was expressed relative to BM (7.3 ± 0.8 and 6.8 ± 0.7 W·kg−1 for IE and NE, respectively), to BM raised to the power of 0.67 (1.73 ± 0.31 and 1.66 ± 0.19 W·kg−0.67 for IE and NE, respectively) and to FFM (8.9 ± 1.0 and 8.5 ± 0.9 W·kg−1 for IE and NE, respectively), the differences between the international and national elite team disappeared.

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Handball Throwing Velocity

The average handball velocity during the standing throw in IE (20.6 ± 1.8 m·s−1) was similar to that of NE (20.6 ± 1.3 m·s−1). The average velocity of handball throwing with 3-step running was not different for IE (23.4 ± 2.8 m·s−1) than for NE (21.9 ± 1.4 m·s−1), although it approached statistical significance (p = 0.085). In both teams, the average handball velocity with a 3-step running throw was higher (13 and 6%; p < 0.001 for IE and NE, respectively) than in the standing throw.

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Relationships Between Strength and Throwing Velocity

In the IE, the individual standing throw velocity values correlated significantly with the individual values of concentric power production at 30% of 1RMBP load (r = 0.72, p < 0.05, n = 9) (Figure 3A), and with the individual values of concentric power production at the load of 60 and 80% of BM (from 0.59 to 0.71, p < 0.05, n = 12) during the half-squat action (Figure 3B).

Figure 3

Figure 3

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Discussion

To our knowledge, this is the first study that measured anthropometric, jumping, running speed, throwing velocity, and endurance characteristics of a national-class female team that compared to the same team when it was successful at international level 6 years after. The results indicate that, compared to NE, IE players showed 15–29% higher values of absolute maximal strength and power of the upper and lower extremities during bench press and half-squat actions and 7% higher values in running endurance. No differences were observed in anthropometric, jumping, running speed, or throwing velocity between the 2 groups. These differences were much less pronounced than those previously observed between national elite and amateur female handball players (e.g., 40% in 1RMBP and 14% in running endurance) (6).

One hypothesis of this study was that IEs should present higher values of absolute maximal strength than national-level players (NE). The major finding that emerged from this study confirmed this hypothesis because absolute maximal strength and power of the upper and lower extremity muscles during bench press and half-squat actions were 15–29% higher in IE than in NE. Similar or even higher strength and power differences have been observed between international elite and amateur male handball players (5) or between national elite and amateur female handball players (6). The differences observed in this study between NE and IE indicate that high absolute values of maximal strength and muscle power are also required for successful performance when passing from national to international level in women's handball. The ability to exert higher maximal muscle force and power compared with NE will give IE a clear advantage, as many of the handball skills such as hitting, blocking, pushing, holding and competing for position require superior absolute strength and muscle power. These significant differences observed in maximal strength and power characteristics between international- and national-level players provide new normative strength and power data for this population, demonstrate the need to consider these physical attributes when identifying potentially talented players and can be used by handball coaches to design training methods aimed at achieving the required levels of maximal strength and power in women's handball.

When muscle power output during half-squat at submaximal loads was expressed relative to BM, to BM raised to the power of 0.67, or to FFM, the differences observed between IE and NE in their ability to move different relative loads disappeared. Similar findings were observed between international elite and amateur male handball players in the 70s and 80s (1,16) and in the last decade (5), and between national elite and amateur female handball players (6). This also concurs with results observed in jumping and sprint running, indicating that the mechanical power expressed relative to BM developed by IEs during jumping and sprint running is similar to that observed in national elite female players. This suggests that neural activation patterns and twitch tension per muscle mass under submaximal concentric half-squat actions are rather similar in international and national elite female players. Further, this strengthens the notion that differences in muscle power in female handball players are mainly based on difference in muscle bulk (21).

Correlations between power-load curves and handball throwing velocity were also examined in this study. Results of correlation analysis showed significant correlations for IE, but not for NE, between velocity values during standing throws and power values at 30% of 1RMBP and power values at 60% of BM during half-squat actions. This indicates ball velocities for an international-level female handball team in a standing throw depend more on the capability of the upper and lower extremity to produce maximal power outputs with submaximal loads than for national-class female handball players. The relationship between the capacity to move low loads at maximal velocities or power production with upper (4,5,15) and lower (5) body segments has been previously observed in international elite male handball players (5) but not in lower-level male (5) or female handball players (6,7). Lower technique or capacity to coordinate the progression of limb segmental motion from proximal to distal during throwing (5,9,15,22,23) could explain the absence of relationships observed in lower-level players between muscle power output at lower loads and ball throwing velocity. The present correlations suggest traditional resistance programs that induce improvements in muscle velocity and power during submaximal-load bench press and parallel squat actions should be reflected in enhanced handball throwing velocity (7,10). These traditional resistance programs could be combined with specific overload throwing exercises using variable weighted handballs (20,23), or core stability training programs (18) that improve handball throwing velocity.

Previous studies performed with non world-class female handball players have shown throwing velocity is correlated to maximal isometric (21) and dynamic (6) strength values of the upper extremity extensor muscles. Based on these studies, we hypothesized that significant correlations between maximal dynamic strength values of the upper extremity extensor muscles and throwing velocity should also be observed in IE players. However, an unexpected finding in this study was that no relationships were observed between maximal bench press strength (1RMBP) and throwing velocity in IE and NE. The results of this study, and of a recently published study (6) performed in our laboratory with amateur female handball players, can explain this apparent discrepancy. This is illustrated in Figure 4, where the individual values of standing throw velocity in those groups of female handball players are correlated to their 1RMBP values. In this figure, AF corresponds to a group of amateur female handball players playing in the Spanish National Second Division League. Thus, although the whole group of player's 1RMBP values correlated with standing throw velocity values (r = 0.77, p < 0.01), the relationship was only significant among the amateurs (r = 0.69, p < 0.05). This seems to indicate that, for 1RMBP values ranging from 30 to approximately 50 kg, throwing velocity is linearly related to the increase in 1RMBP. This is in agreement with findings observed in female handball players with average 1RMBP values lower than 50 kg where an increase in 1RMBP after a high-intensity resistance training program was associated with an increase in handball throwing velocity (6,10). This suggests that maximal elbow extensors strength is an important factor in attaining high ball velocities during overarm throws in female handball players whose 1RMBP values are <approximately 50 kg. However, Figure 4 also shows that when 1RMBP values exceeded approximately 50 kg, as happens in all IE players, the level of maximal strength performance may not be necessarily related to the ability to throw the ball at high velocities. The finding of different relationships between throwing velocity and maximal strength and power of the upper and lower extremity muscles in IE, compared with NE or lower-level players, raises the question of the appropriate strength training stimulus required to elicit improvements in throwing velocity in female handball sports of different levels (8).

Figure 4

Figure 4

It has been shown that the running velocity associated with a given submaximal blood lactate concentration is an accurate predictor of aerobic capacity (3). One of the findings of this study is that the average running velocity associated with a blood lactate concentration of 3 mmol·L−1 (V3) was 7% higher in IE than in NE. This agrees with previous studies performed with Norwegian (10,14) and Spanish female handball players (6), which showed that average maximal aerobic power (V[Combining Dot Above]O2max) was 10% higher at international elite than at second division level (10,14), whereas (V3) was 14% higher in national elite than in amateur players (6). The differences of this study between international and national elite female players suggest that, besides having high absolute maximal strength and muscle power values, high aerobic capacities are also required for the successful transition from national to international-level women's handball. These observations strongly suggest that improvements in the level of play in women's handball include optimizing endurance capacity. However, careful attention should be given to the full handball training program to avoid the negative interference effects observed in handball teams when carrying out similar concurrent aerobic and resistance training programs (5).

In summary, this study shows that IEs present higher values in 1RMBP, average absolute muscle power output at submaximal loads during bench press and half-squat actions, and in endurance running performance. Differences in FFM could account on their own for the discrepancies in absolute muscle power observed between groups and can explain how mechanical power expressed relative to BM or of FFM developed during half-squat, vertical jumping and sprint running are similar in both groups. The higher absolute levels of maximal strength and muscle power compared with NE will, however, give IE a clear advantage as many of the handball skills require superior absolute strength and muscle power. As opposed to lower-level female handball players, the ball throwing velocity of IEs depends more on the capacity to produce muscle power at submaximal loads with the upper and lower extremities than on the level of performance at maximal strength. This is probably due to the higher maximal strength values observed at international level.

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Practical Applications

This study has practical importance, because it shows that (a) higher absolute maximal strength and muscle power, and endurance capacity, are required in women's handball when passing from national to international level, and (b) throwing velocity in international-level female handball players depends more on the capabilities of the upper and lower extremity to produce maximal power with submaximal loads than in lower-level female handball players. These significant differences observed between international and national-level female players provide new normative strength, power, and endurance capacity data for these populations and can contribute to talent selection and identification. Women's handball coaches should apply strength and endurance conditioning exercises and evaluate players accordingly, so that they may receive appropriate training stimuli to match the physiological demands of their level of competition.

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Acknowledgments

This study was supported by grants from the Instituto Navarro del Deporte, Gobierno de Navarra. No authors listed in conjunction with this manuscript submission demonstrate any form of conflict of interest, be financial or otherwise. The results of this study do not constitute endorsement of the product by the authors or the National Strength and Conditioning Association. No known conflicts of interest associated with this publication, and there has been no significant financial support for this work that could have influenced its outcome.

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Keywords:

muscle strength; muscle power; endurance; performance; women

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