This article, by longtime vault observer Bussabarger, is a brief synopsis of fiberglass vaulting technique. Bussabarger has studied a large number of accomplished vaulters over the years and has made conclusions based on analysis of their technique. Perhaps the most important takeaway of this study is that there has always been a great deal of individual variation in execution among the best vaulters and there is no hard-and-fast one way to vault.
By David Bussabarger
At its most fundamental level all pole vaulting (regardless of the type of pole used) is about (1) Developing energy in the form of speed and drive during the run, which is the primary source for powering the vault; (2) Converting the forward energy of the run into vertical energy for height during the vaulting action (correctly changing the direction of the flow of energy through the vault). In fiberglass vaulting, given correct overall execution of technique, the recoil of the pole adds an extra vertical boost to the vault.
Analysis of dozens of elite vaulters, going back to the early 60’s, shows that there is a significant stylistic variation among all vaulters that continues to this day. This leads to the obvious conclusion that stylistic variation amongst fiberglass vaulters is both natural and the norm. Therefore every coach and vaulter should accept and embrace this fact. It makes no more sense to expect all vaulters to conform to one supposedly ideal technical model than it does to expect all vaulters to wear the same size track shoe.
The length of the run among accomplished vaulters is typically between 120 to 140 feet. During the run the pole is carried at an upward angle of 45 to 90 degrees to reduce the effective carrying weight of the pole.
It is of utmost importance for the vaulter to emphasize the development of maximum speed and drive during the final strides of the run. To achieve this many vaulters begin the run slowly and then progressively gain speed and drive into the takeoff. Other vaulters quickly gain speed at the beginning of the run and then maintain top speed and drive into the takeoff.
The goal of the plant is to secure the tip of the pole in the box and to put the vaulter in the best possible position to execute the takeoff.
The plant is executed in two stages: (1) On the penultimate stride, the top hand on the pole is curled upward close to the right side of the vaulter’s head (for right handed vaulters); (2) On the final stride the top arm is extended fully upward overhead creating the highest possible pole angle.
Some vaulters lower the pole to horizontal before beginning the planting action while others begin dropping the tip of the of the pole at the same time they begin executing the plant.
THE TAKEOFF POINT
Analysis of dozens of elite vaulters over the years indicates that the majority of them take off “underneath” (the front of the takeoff foot is ahead of the vertical plane of the top hand when the plant is correctly completed and the vaulter is in an erect position over his/her takeoff foot).The probable reason for this is that, unlike rigid pole vaulters, fiberglass vaulters must emphasize driving forward and into the pole as they take off to facilitate bending the pole.
The evidence also shows that the takeoff point among individual elite vaulters can vary from 2” to 3” behind the vertical plane of the top hand (“out”) to as much as 18” ahead of it (“under”) while still producing vaults of 6m or better. Therefore, the logical conclusion that there is no one best takeoff point for all vaulters. Rather, coaches and vaulters should accept that each individual has a natural takeoff point that can vary substantially from vaulter to vaulter and still produce outstanding results.
The takeoff should forcefully propel the vaulter inward and slightly upward (at about a 20-degree angle) as he/she leaves the ground, in conjunction with run-up speed and drive. Given correct execution the takeoff begins the conversion of energy by initiating a very gradual change in the vaulter’s direction of movement at this point in the vault.
To achieve correct results the vaulter must first move as continuously as possible over the takeoff foot in an erect position, while at the same time springing off the ground and into the air. Secondly the vaulter must lead the takeoff action with the torso, where the Center of Mass is located. As the torso moves inward it causes the top arm to flex back and become taut, while at the same time the takeoff leg also flexes back. This process results in the classic reverse “C” position at the completion of the takeoff. Overall tension in the body, relative to the pole, is then unleashed after the takeoff to power the following swing.
A number of different variations in the action and positioning of the lead leg during the takeoff can be seen among accomplished vaulters. Most drive the lead leg forward and upward through the takeoff action. Another common variation is characterized by lifting the lead leg upward in a folded or bent position during the takeoff. A relatively small number of elite vaulters use a modification of rigid pole takeoff technique (the lead is driven upwards at the instant of takeoff and then extended downwards immediately thereafter). Finally, a few elite vaulters lift the bent lead leg upward as they takeoff and then extend it outward like a hurdler once airborne.
The most important impact of these particular variations is the difference they make in the position of the vaulter’s C.O.M. during the takeoff action. As a general rule the lower the position of the lead leg, the lower the vaulter’s C.O.M. will be. This, in turn, helps conserve available forward momentum. Conversely, the higher the vaulter’s lead leg position, the higher the vaulter’s C.O.M. will be, which tends to diminish available forward momentum. It is noteworthy that extremely high grippers like Shawn Barber (17-4) , Thiago Braz (17-2) and Renaud Lavillenie (17’) all display relatively low lead leg positioning, in conjunction with a pronounced forward driving action during the takeoff. Sergey Bubka, who had high lead leg positioning during the takeoff, is an exception to this rule. His grip of 17’ was primarily based on his exceptional runway speed.
Most contemporary fiberglass vaulters emphasize using active pressure and extension with the lead arm against the pole during the takeoff. It is very important that the lower arm action and positioning does not block the inward progress of the vaulter’s body (particularly the vaulter’s torso) at this point in the vault. If this happens the mechanical effectiveness of the takeoff will most likely be impaired. A popular solution to this problem is emphasizing leading with the upper torso or chest during the takeoff. This produces a more concentrated and forceful forward driving action, which helps push the extended lead arm backward as the chest moves inward.
The swing is characterized by the forceful forward-to-upward sweeping action of the elongated trail leg while the vaulter hangs from the extended top arm (note that in some cases both the vaulter’s legs are elongated during the swing and as a result, they sweep both legs). This action begins the rotary inversion of the body and is a critical stage in the conversion of energy.
Most accomplished vaulters today either emphasize using pressure and extension of the lead arm against the pole continuously during the takeoff and swing or they allow the lead arm to flex during the takeoff and then extend it during the swing. In both cases this action helps the vaulter bend the pole. Another important consideration is that over the years fiberglass vaulters have learned to substantially increase their forward driving action during the takeoff. This has helped promote higher hand grips but has also created an unintended side effect. The greater the forward drive generated during the takeoff the more centrifugal force will be generated during the swing. Pressure and extension in the lead arm helps prevent the vaulter from being sucked outward and into the bar during the vault.
The rock-back completes the rotary inversion of the body and sets the vaulter up for the completion of the energy conversion process during the following vertical extension.
Some vaulters, like the legendary Sergey Bubka, continue sweeping the extended trail leg around and back until it merges with the end of the pole above the top hand. However, because the vaulter begins working increasingly against gravity once the trail leg passes beyond a 45-degree angle to the ground, most accomplished vaulters begin shorting their radius of rotation by tucking soon after this point. This action conserves available rotary momentum, which makes effectively completing the rock-back easier.
A number of different variations of the completion of the tucking rock-back style can be seen among elite vaulters. Some vaulters pike the feet back to the top of the pole after the initial tucking action, while others continue pressing the knees towards the chest and moving the feet back until they merge with the top of the pole. Another popular variation entails bending the lead leg and foot back past and outside the top arm after the initial tucking action.
There are varying opinions as to whether the vaulter should delay for an instant at the end of the rock-back before extending (“tuck and shoot”) or try to move as continuously as possible from the rock-back into the subsequent vertical extension. The evidence shows that outstanding results have been achieved using either method.
THE VERTICAL EXTENSION
Once the rock-back is correctly completed the vaulter should thrust his/her hips and legs vertically in line with the axis of the pole. Some vaulters emphasize timing the extension of the body with the recoil of the pole to maximize the catapultic action of the vault. Others thrust their bodies vertically with as much force as possible, maximizing the power generated during the vertical extension. Again, both methods have produced outstanding results.
While emphasizing continuing to move as vertically as possible, the vaulter should begin twisting his/her hip and right shoulder (for right handers) to the left, while at the same time beginning a “round house” hook-like pulling action with the top arm. If the preceding phases of the vault have been completed correctly, the pull/turn should require minimal physical effort and should flow smoothly into the following push-off.
The push-off is essentially the natural continuation of the pull/turn action and the culmination of all the preceding phases (how far the vaulter can vault above his/her hand grip is primarily determined by how well the vaulter has executed the preceding phases of the vault). Like the pull/turn, the push-off should require minimal physical effort to execute.
Once the vaulter is above the bar and the pole has been released, the arms should be lifted smoothly overhead and the body should naturally rotate about the bar. The rotation of the body should continue until the vaulter is in position to land on his/her back in the pit.
The vaulter should not rush the lifting of the arms too soon after the release of the pole. Doing so can push the vaulter’s body into the bar and cause a failed attempt.
HAND SPREAD ON THE POLE
Hand spread on the pole among 6m or better vaulters varies from about 18” for Sergey Bubka to an estimated 30” for Jean Galfione. A relatively narrow hand spread makes it easier to push the torso inward during the takeoff. Therefore it is definitely beneficial for vaulters who utilize pronounced pressure and extension in the leading arm on the pole during the takeoff. However a narrow hand spread also tends to reduce the vaulter’s control and balance during the execution of the vault. Conversely a wide hand spread improves the vaulter’s balance and control but also tends to impede the inward movement of the torso during the takeoff. It is recommended that every vaulter experiment to find a hand spread that produces the best results for the given vaulter.
The positioning and weight of the head have a significant impact on the action of the vaulter during the vault. As a general rule the vaulter should “look” in the direction he/she wants to go. That means vision should be straight ahead or slightly elevated as the vaulter takes off (vision should not be elevated above 20 degrees, which is roughly the angle of a well executed takeoff or below parallel to the ground). It is recommended that the vaulter rotate his /her head back in sync with the rotation of the body during the swing and rock-back. Vision should be directed vertically and not at the bar at the completion of the rock-back and during the vertical extension. The head should be aligned with the spine (becoming a natural extension of the spine) during the execution of the pull/turn and the push-off. Lastly, the vaulter should not rush throwing the head back once the pole is released, which can push the vaulter into the bar and cause a failed attempt.
Few people today know or remember that the majority of elite vaulters in the mid-1960’s, such as John Pennel, Fred Hansen and Bob Seagren, used roughly equal weight poles with great success (their poles were rated about equal to their weight and grip). All three of these vaulters achieved push-offs of 3 feet or better using these poles. Pennel, in particular, achieved a push-off of 3’8” on his WR jump of 17’6¼” in 1966. The reason vaulters used such light poles at this time was because they were still learning and working out how to bend the pole and the gaps between pole sizes were relatively large.
By the late 1960’s it was commonly understood that the stiffer the pole the vaulter could effectively bend and use, relative to his body weight and grip (there were no female vaulters at this time), the greater the recoil force of the pole. This, in turn, generally improved the vaulter’s push-off distance. Over the years vaulters have developed modifications in execution, like “stiff arming” the pole with the leading arm and emphasizing forward drive during the takeoff, that promote the bending of the stiffest possible poles (up to 40lbs or more overweight). Yet relatively few vaulters today can exceed Pennel’s push-off from 1966.
The writer believes that today’s vaulters place too much emphasis on getting onto the biggest pole possible and moving too quickly to a bigger pole when the one they are on feels “soft”. It is the writer’s view that early fiberglass greats achieved such good results with light poles because they kept using the same pole, often for years. In effect they adjusted their execution to their pole and learned how to get the most possible out of it.
This is not to say vaulters shouldn’t use overweight poles. Rather, a little moderation might be in order. This point is is particularly important when working with novices. Given good development of technique, a high school boy should be able to achieve a push-off of 2 feet using an equal weight pole (girls 1 foot).