Performance Tools for Better Health and Athleticism!
It can be a great discouragement for many trainees when progress in the gym is hindered by sports injuries. The chaotic world of sport sometimes places our joints and connective tissue in unpredictable situations. These situations can be quite different from the ones that our tissues are accustomed to facing in the gym. As a result strong guys often get injured in activities that do not require a lot of traditional strength because, for example, while their glutes might produce adequate force in the patterns they are accustomed to (bilateral squat/deadlift) they may not produce adequate force in others (gait, change of direction, etc.).
To help with this we have exercises which we shall call “performance tools,” that can be practiced in the gym to help us maintain our orthopedic health in the context of playing sports. We spend grueling weeks, months, and years developing strength in our lifts and reaping their aesthetic rewards. And it can take just as long to recover from an ankle or ACL injury and get back to previous strength levels. Including some of these non-traditional exercises in your programming can go a long way in avoiding this potential problem.
These performance tools can be categorized in the following areas:
- Subsystems Training
- “Plane-Transfer” Training
- Anti-Extension Training
We will take these three categories and pull from them a total of six exercises. Each exercise will belong to at least one category. But first, an explanation of what each category entails.
Bracing The Core Using Subsystems
The subsystems are the different methods the body uses to brace or stabilize our “core.” They are made up of the muscles which impact various fascial and kinetic slings (think Thomas Myers’ Anatomy Trains). The main subsystems are listed here (but of course there may certainly be more!):
- Lateral Subsystem: When standing on one leg the glute medius and contralateral QL work to stabilize the hip and keep it level in the frontal plane.
- Anterior Oblique Subsystem: In this system the adductors and contralateral external oblique must work together to rotate the lumbo-pelvic region of the spine. This is the system which allows for the rotation that naturally occurs during gait and in kicking and throwing sports.
- Posterior Oblique Subystem: In gait, the glute max and contralateral lat work together via the thoraco-lumbar fascia to extend the hip and retrovert the humerus
- Deep Longitudinal Subystem: this system uses the erectors to the biceps femoris via the sacrotuberus ligament to stabilize the Sacroiliac joint, keeping it fitted tightly together.
Plane-Transfer & Anti-Extension Skills
These next categories are not subsystems but they are skills which are influenced by the subsystems and play a direct role in every sport taking place on a court, field, or track. Prioritizing them at certain times or parts in your training can be a helpful defense against sports injuries.
- Plane-Transfer: Defined as the transferring of bodyweight or momentum from one plane of motion into another. Usually going from the saggital plane, to the frontal and transverse, and then to the saggital plane once again.
- Anti-Extension: Battle the extension forces that acceleration/sprinting and jumping has on the lumbar spine due to repeated hyperextension of the hips and the powerful contraction of the lats.
Performance Tools: Exercises for Better Health & Performance in Sport
Now that we have identified these categories let’s look at ways that we can incorporate exercises from each of them to improve our athletic function so that we can keep doing what we love. By developing muscles and patterns in these subsystems we help ensure that we can exhibit our strength in places outside of the gym.
#1 Bridge & Curl Variations
This exercise is grouped under the Deep Longitudinal Subsystem and is one of the best tools to protect the structures of the knee- especially the ACL. This is because while most lower body training involves performing the same action at the hip and knee simultaneously (flexion during the eccentric phase of a lift and extension during the concentric phase of the lift) bridge and curl variations do the opposite.
During a bridge and curl we train the hamstrings to function at both ends at the same time. Extension happens at the hip while flexion (or a flexion “action”) happens at the knee. These exercises require concentric action at both ends of the hamstring simultaneously. This type of activity is coined by Boyle as “co-contraction,” and allows the all-important biceps femoris to assist the glute in extending the hip while also decelerating knee extension.
With both sets of hamstring fibers learning to fire in better coordination and proportion, we can exhibit more control over the knee joint while propelling the hips through space. This can save many trainees and athletes from shearing and valgus stress at the knee. There are few better defenses against the dynamic changes in gait occurring in sport than a well-executed bridge and curl!
For the same reasons above, Bridge and Curls also reinforce a more functional Deep Longitudinal System. As stated, the role of the DLS is to balance the tension placed on the Sacroilliac joint through the cooperation of the hamstrings (which posteriorly tilt the pelvis) and the erectors (which anteriorly tilt the pelvis). When the muscles in this system are firing well they prevent undue stress-transfer to the SI and the densely ligamentous region that it sits in. Practicing control over both ends of the hamstring ensures more global contribution to this system.
Any given variation of the bridge and curl is executed similarly, and differs only in the physical object or tool used to carry it out (swiss ball, mini-slideboard, etc.). To perform this exercise, do a hip thrust and maintain a posterior pelvic tilt while simultaneously flexing the knee to curl the object toward you. Once the knees are flexed and the hips are fully extended, do the opposite: extend the knees while flexing at the hip and return to the floor.
#2 Supine Rolling Variations
Next up we have the supine roll. This exercise is for those who regularly engage in running/kicking and throwing/punching sports (martial arts, soccer, baseball, etc.). The supine roll is originally a part of the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), but we can take it and modify it for our own purposes as athletes and coaches: identifying red flags and removing them before they blow up! The supine roll contains both upper and lower body components; and it measures the function of our Anterior Oblique Subsystem (AOS).
Let’s look at the lower body component first (running and kicking sports). In this component, the Anterior Oblique System includes the adductors of the kicking leg and the contralateral (opposite side) external oblique. To illustrate how the supine roll can be helpful, let’s use the example of kicking a soccer ball.
The adductors and hip flexors engage to kick the ball, no doubt about it. But the core is a huge player in kicking, as well. When we kick across the body (a strike in soccer or a roundhouse in martial arts) the entire hip rotates forward. The adductors of the kicking leg work with the contralateral external oblique to “pull” or rotate the pelvis forward (a lumbo-pelvic rotation).
What happens if the external oblique does not engage? You guessed it, the adductors must work doubly hard to generate enough force to rotate the hips and kick the ball. This is a big contributor to the plethora of overuse strains or chronic soreness in the groin region for kicking athletes.
But, it doesn’t stop there. Just like you see in the work of Myers, the AOS extends all the way up to the opposite shoulder. And so it works the same way for throwing athletes. In an example of an athlete throwing a baseball, the whole trunk rotates forward. In this example, the pecs and rotator cuff of the throwing arm and the contralateral internal oblique work together to rotate the trunk forward (a thoracic rotation).
What happens if the internal oblique does not engage during a throwing action? The rotator cuff and pectoral group (the elbow, too) must work doubly hard to generate enough force to throw the ball.
The supine roll therefore is a test to see if the athlete can engage both his limb and core muscles in the appropriate sequence to rotate either the pelvis or the shoulders forward. It is a great assessment and/or corrective for high-powered athletes in these sports who have chronic issues in the shoulder or groin region. They may be super strong, but get them on the floor for this basic rolling pattern and you may find them sweating buckets.
To perform this exercise for throwing sports, lie flat on your back with the head slightly off the floor and pretend that you are paralyzed from the waist down. Your goal is then to flip your body over into the prone position using only the working arm. If you cannot flip over without cheating or if you get stuck, there is likely a dysfunction with the firing of your internal oblique and resolving it will do wonders for your long-term shoulder health. An example of what this looks like can be seen when I initially try to use my right arm to rotate my body to the left, and get stuck.
To perform this exercise for kicking sports, lie flat on your back pretending that you are paralyzed from the waist up. Your goal is then to flip the body over into the prone position using only the working leg. In the same way, if you cannot flip over without cheating or if you get stuck, there is likely a dysfunction with the firing of the external oblique and resolving it will do wonders for your long-term groin health.
#3 In-Place Dumbbell March Variations
The in-place dumbbell march involves the Lateral Subsystem and is a great exercise to use as a progression before performing running carries. The Lateral Subsystem looks at the source of our stability when on one leg, and represents the relationship between the glute medius of the working hip (the hip of the foot on the ground) and the quadratus lumborum of the opposite hip.
In physical therapy circles a weak Lateral Subsystem often presents as Trendelenburg Syndrome. This is diagnosed in the single-leg stance when the hip of the non-working leg (which is raised to 90degrees) drops, indicating the working leg has a dysfunctional glute medius muscle. As the Lateral Subsystem predicts, the opposite quadrutus lumborum will generally be stuck with the job of picking up the glute med’s slack. We are then more susceptible to chronic pain and overuse injury during single-leg activities (running and leaping or hopping).
Compensatory function in this system can cause the pelvis to shift up or down (hike or drop) when the foot strikes the ground, or when engaging in hip or trunk extension lifts in the gym. Tightness, spasm, and compression at the low back or even valgus activity at the knee are all common consequences of compensation in this system. Hyperactivity of the quadratus lumborum is an overlooked culprit in back pain, and LS dysfunction is a big player in that.
Another great variation is the Unilateral Dumbbell March:
Perform the static dumbbell march by holding the dumbbell(s) or kettlebell(s) away from the body (just outside of the shoulder) and march in place. Bring the knee to hip height with each step. Maintain a level set of hips and shoulders, and avoid leaning to either side. Train the exercise by using one dumbbell first, and then graduating to using two.
#4 Jack-Knife Plank Variations
Variations of the jackknife plank are huge in helping to prevent chronic low back soreness or pain that can result in an overuse injury. As we pump our arms in high speed gait, the violent stretch on the lats as we raise our arm pulls on our thoraco-lumbar fascia (located around the mid/lower back). This pulling of the fascia exerts a powerful extension force on the lumbar spine. Adding to this, with every bound we also hyperextend at the hip, creating more tension in the erectors. These repetitive extension forces are a reason why many field athletes live in a slight anterior pelvic tilt; and why low back soreness is so rampant among weekend warriors and recreational athletes who also do a lot of heavy axial loading in their weight training.
Variations of the jackknife plank such as the swissball, TRX, or mini-slideboard are great for helping to stabilize the lower back and pelvis against these extension forces by creating more everyday tone in the muscles which posteriorly tilt the pelvis (rectus abdominus and glute max). This posterior tilting creates more space between the lumbar discs.
All jack-knife variations are essentially performed in the same way: get into a plank and drive the body backward, increasing the angle between the ribs and elbows. In general, the more friction that there is to push backward/pull forward against (mini-slideboard has the most) the more challenging the exercise becomes. Be sure to keep tension in the glutes throughout each repetition!
#5 The Side Squat and Lift
This one is my personal favourite. As seen in the demonstration, the Side Squat and Press is just an advanced Chop/Lift pattern. When changing direction in sport we must often decelerate movement in one plane of motion and then re-accelerate in another. Although athletes appear to do this seamlessly, it is no simple task. This is often where injuries at the hip, knee, back, and the supporting soft tissue take place.
The Side Squat and its variations, culminating in this exercise, are one of the most effective movements for hip mobility that relates to sport and change of direction. This is because whereas other single-leg movements involve passive work in the frontal and transverse planes, this movement involves all planes actively. It is also one of the simplest movements to teach, and is a lot of fun to apply with many opportunities to incorporate it into your training.
Years of bilateral, saggital plane lifting can take away from the ability of the hip to perform more than one action at a given time. But to repetitively accomplish change of direction safely, the hip must be able to simultaneously flex in the saggital plane, adduct/abduct in the frontal plane, and rotate in the transverse plane. These three actions are what allow us to absorb our momentum and utilize the stretch-reflex to launch us in an opposite direction. If the hip is neither mobile nor stable enough to perform these actions together, the joints above and/or below will be called upon to do so instead. This can roll the ankle, create torsion forces at the knee, or create torque and flexion in the lumbar spine. Ouch.
Perform this drill by setting a handle in a low cable attachment. Create some space and then side squat toward the attachment while rotating the hips in the bottom of the squat. Push the floor away with the inside foot while stepping away and forward from the cable attachment with the other. Rotate the body to follow the stepping foot and press the cable up and forward. Mastering these simple side squat and side lunge variations may be a helpful regression, first.
#6 Cable Single Leg RDL Variations
Last but certainly not least, we have the Cable RDL. This RDL variation is important for helping to develop the Posterior Oblique Subsystem common to everyone from desk jockey to elite 100m sprinter. In this system, the glute max works with the contralateral lat. The area of the back known as the thoraco-lumbar fascia is responsible for helping to transmit force between these two muscles to propel us forward at all levels of gait.
When this system is not functioning properly it can cause a lot of soreness in and around the mid to lower back, and negatively impact the SI joint. The cable allows us to train this system at different angles and prioritize different muscle fibers.
To perform this exercise, set the pulley height and grab the cable with one hand. Create enough space to fully extend the arm toward the pulley without losing tension in it. Keep the arm extended as you hinge at the hip. Then drive the foot into the floor and push yourself into a stand while simultaneously rowing the cable.
Bringing It All Together
For those individuals who love lifting and playing sports; and for those pros who find that there is still a missing link between your strength training and on-field performance, the mastery of these exercises can help you enjoy the best of both worlds and prevent one from encroaching in a negative way upon the other. Try including them as active rests between your regular training pairs, or as an integral part of your warm-up!
About The Author
Alex Nurse is a Toronto strength, speed, and agility coach. With knowledge in both Neurokinetic Therapy and Soft Tissue Release, he helps his athletes and clients improve their athletic performance while avoiding the potentially debilitating domino-effect of movement dysfunction. He divides his time between Body + Soul Fitness and GameWithoutPain- an organization dedicated to the health and performance of E-sports athletes. He co-writes the Toronto Health and Performance Newsletter with his colleague, Joel White.