How To Do an Underhand Serve in Volleyball

The underhand serve is a fundamental technique in volleyball that’s important for all players to master. Serving presents a unique opportunity in volleyball because it’s the only time anyone interacts with a stationary ball. Serving can also be an excellent chance to score, so having great technique and control is a must.

Want to learn more about this foundational volleyball skill? Keep reading for a step-by-step guide on how to do an underhand serve in volleyball, as well as the pros and cons of serving underhand and examples of when serving underhand might be the best strategy.

What is an Underhand Serve?

Performing an underhand serve involves holding the ball in front of you with one hand, then swinging your other arm so that your fist connects with the bottom of the ball, sending it arcing over the net. When using this technique, it’s important to step forward as you’re serving to add power and momentum to your strike. The “underhand” descriptor refers to the motion of your fist as it swings down and up to pop the ball into the air from below.

It’s also important to make sure you move your base hand out from under the ball just before serving. We’ll go over the reasons for this in the “Rules” section.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Serving Underhand

The underhand serve is a good option for beginners, since the ball remains stationary until the moment of serving. It’s also easier to map out where you want the ball to go when you’re serving underhand, since you have full control over where to position the ball while it’s still in your non-serving hand. Beginning players will find the slower, more methodical nature of this technique ideal for learning the strategies involved in serving, such as where to aim the ball.

One major disadvantage of this technique is that it’s pretty easy to receive, meaning the other team will likely be able to keep the ball in play after it’s served to them. Additionally, while this style is easier for beginners at first, it’s actually easier to aim and direct overhand serves once you’ve mastered those techniques as well. 

Overhand serves and jump serves offer a great deal more power and speed than the underhand serve, and they make the ball harder for the other team to track and receive.

Underhand vs Overhand Serve

The underhand and overhand serves differ dramatically in their execution. In the underhand serve, you’re popping the ball into the air from below, usually creating an arc as the ball travels upward and then down over the net.

By contrast, an overhand serve is performed by tossing the ball into the air and smacking it with an open hand held over the head. In a successful overhand serve, the ball usually rockets forward (or downward if a jump is involved) before dropping onto the opposing team’s side.

Tips for Serving Underhand

Here are a few tips and techniques for how to execute a good underhand serve:

  • Keep your dominant foot back and keep your weight on it until you’re ready to step forward.
  • Cup the ball lightly in your non-dominant hand; don’t grip it with your fingers.
  • Hold the ball at about mid-thigh height, and lean forward to bring yourself closer to the ball.
  • Look at where you want the ball to go, then focus on the bottom of the ball where you will hit it.
  • Squeeze your hand into a fist and draw your hitting arm straight behind you, quickly.
  • Step forward as you swing your hitting arm toward the ball, shifting your weight to your non-dominant foot.
  • Release the ball just before your fist makes contact.
  • Follow through with your hitting arm, letting your fist continue to sail upward as the ball arcs over the net.
  • Immediately prepare for the other team to return the ball by sinking into a ready position with your arms in front of you.

Once you’ve mastered these techniques, you’ll be able to execute a good underhand serve with ease every time.

If you’re wondering when to use an underhand serve, the answer depends on the tier of volleyball you’re playing. The underhand serve is commonly used in junior leagues and casual games, since it’s the easiest serving style to master and is also relatively easy for the opposing team to receive, meaning the ball is more likely to stay in play. However, it might also be prudent to use an underhand serve if doing so will surprise or throw off the opposing team, causing unforced errors.

Tips for Receiving Underhand Serves

Here are a few cues to look for that the opposing team might be about to serve underhand:

  • Ball held below the waist
  • Serving hand balled into a fist
  • Low, steady center of gravity

When you’re receiving an underhand serve, it’s important to remember that the ball will be moving more slowly than with an overhand serve, giving you time to track its progress and figure out exactly where it will land. The ball will most likely arc upward as it travels over the net. By following its path carefully, you and your teammates should be able to map out where it will fall on your side.

Remember, you are not allowed to block or spike your opponent’s serve, however tempting that may be when receiving an underhand serve.

Can You Serve Underhand in College Volleyball?

College volleyball players typically serve using overhand. If you’ve attended a volleyball game at the collegiate or professional level and observed this trend, you may be left wondering: is it illegal to serve underhand?

The answer is no. According to the International Volleyball Federation, either an overarm or underarm serve may be used. The reason you rarely see an underhand serve in college or professional volleyball is that overhand serves offer a lot more power and potential to score, and top-tier players have mastered the form and finesse required to use these more challenging techniques.

Rules for Underhand Serving

The rules for underhand serving are simple. You may hit the ball with any part of your hand or arm; however, you must first release the ball from your non-serving hand, and you may not hit the ball with any other part of your body.

The following moves are not allowed while serving underhand:

  • Kicking the ball
  • Hitting the ball out of your hand without releasing it
  • Throwing the ball
  • Using two hands to serve
  • Using any other part of the body to strike the ball

Underhand Serving Drills

As with every sports technique, practice makes perfect when learning how to serve a volleyball. If you’re just starting out, here are two drills you can use to hone your technique. One of the drills can be performed by a single person; the other drill requires a partner.

  1. Solo Drill. Serve the ball using the underhand technique described above. Perform 30 serves, trying each time to get the ball to go over the net and land inside the court on the other team’s side. Count the number of times you land inside the court. Aim for at least a 50% success rate at first. Do 4 sets of 30 serves each, resting in between each set.
  2. Partnered Drill. Serve the ball over the net using the technique described above. Your partner should catch the ball and immediately serve it back to you using the same technique. Count the number of times the two of you are able to serve back and forth without the ball touching the ground. Keep track of the way your score improves as you keep practicing.

Other Underhand Techniques

Many other techniques in volleyball make use of an underhand swing. Here is a rundown of three other underhand techniques you may find useful:

  • Underhand Pass. Also called the Forearm Pass, this technique involves cupping one hand inside the other and bending your knees with your arms outstretched so that the ball bounces off your forearms or fists. The ball should connect with your hands or forearms at about knee height.
  • Underhand Set. Also called a Bump Set. This move is when you bump the ball from below rather than using your fingers in the traditional overhand set technique.
  • Underhand Lift. Lifting in volleyball refers to holding onto the ball longer than is allowed. An underhand lift means the player moved to perform an underhand pass or set, but the ball remained in their hands or on their forearms for more than a moment. Underhand lift could also refer to hitting the ball with an open hand underhand, which is not allowed.

Muscles Used When Serving Underhand

The underhand serve mostly engages the arm, shoulder, and front deltoid muscles. When you practice the technique many times in a row using the drills described above, you’ll notice that your glutes and quads are involved as well. When you lean forward just before serving the ball, your back muscles are also engaged. 

The Bottom Line

If you’re a seasoned volleyball pro, your days of using an underhand serve may be far behind you. Under the right circumstances, however, this fundamental technique may give you just the edge you need to surprise the opposing team and keep them guessing as to what you’ll do next.

Meanwhile, if you’re new to the game, getting this serving technique down pat will put you well on your way toward increasing your confidence and your ability to plan and strategize while on the court. Get out there and happy serving!