Athletic speed is such an amazing fixation. There is no mistaking it when speed is displayed on the playing field. Those who own it are seemingly moving around effortlessly, and those who don’t appear to be standing still.
What makes some athletes incredibly fast where others struggle to get out of their own way? Certainly, genetics play an important role, but I think there is much more to it than that.
When an athlete in a court or field sport is required to display quick change of directions via deceleration and acceleration, there must be great body control. In order for there to be great body control, the athlete must display great core control (I use the term "core" to describe the regions of the pelvis, abdominals, lower back and sometimes I include hips but not for this discussion). It is here where I would like to investigate the importance of core training and the transfer to multi-directional speed.
We know that the body moves on basically three planes: sagittal, frontal and transverse or any combination of the three. When an athlete is making a sharp cut or change of direction, the goal of the athletes’ core musculature is to actually fight against moving or stabilize the spine and pelvis against movement. The issue that occurs when an athlete abruptly stops the body’s momentum and reverses or changes its path is that the upper body wants to carry that momentum further. It is the job of the core musculature to engage and decelerate the shoulders from continuing in the original direction. The ability of the athlete's core musculature to do this well determines how quickly the change of direction speed can be.
There are other components of multi-directional speed that can assist the core musculature in the deceleration of the spine and shoulders; for example, the angle at which the feet plant is extremely important to decelerate the body. If the angles of the feet are not in the appropriate position, determined by the speed of the athlete, to decelerate the body’s momentum, there can end up being a stutter step or stumbling. Or the athlete’s plant leg may slip out from under him or her if the feet are planted too wide. Another important component to consider is the vertical (raising and lowering) movement of the hips coming into the deceleration move. When an athlete lowers the hips and therefore the center of mass too low, it is difficult to get out of that position quickly and change direction. If the athlete’s hips are too high, the momentum of the upper body will be too great for the lower body to control efficiently. If these other components are controlled and executed properly, the actions of the core musculature can be more capable.
Let’s take a closer look at the role of the core musculature in an athletic arena. So much of athletics is based on reactions to a stimulus, especially on the defensive side of the game. Athletes must constantly decelerate, accelerate, change direction, jump, dodge and chase. To the naked eye, we as spectators see the actions of the athlete’s arms and legs and don’t really see what is going on in the torso. But in order for the athlete’s extremities to be explosive and react to random situations, the core musculature must create a foundation for them to work from. For example, when a soccer goalie reacts to a goal kick, it is the responsibility of the core musculature to “brace” and allow the legs and arms to express force and move quickly. So if the goalie must quickly dive to the right, the left leg must push down and out to the left, with help from the right leg, as both arms stretch quickly to the right to catch or deflect the ball. If the soccer goalie has a dysfunction within the core, it may delay his or her actions and cause a goal to be scored.
Before going any further, I would like to take a moment and discuss some of the musculature within the core region. Prior to going into the names and actions of some of the major muscles within the core, it is important to mention that the body’s musculature system doesn’t work independently. When there is motion of an extremity or the torso, there is a chain reaction throughout the body of muscular stabilizers and prime movers to allow motion to occur. When arm action is initiated, muscles within the core contract and brace to allow the arm to have a foundation to move from.
Listed are some of the major core muscles that allow for gross movement and stabilization:
- Rectus Abdominus - Also known as the “6 pack” muscles. Located in the center and front of the torso. It is responsible for flexion of the upper body when the feet are anchored and posterior rotation and rising of the pelvis when the upper body is anchored. It is an important decelerator of the upper body against back extension and anterior tilting of the pelvis. It also aids in lateral flexion and deceleration of lateral flexion.
- External Obliques - This muscle helps flexion of the trunk on the one side as well as both sides and is responsible for contralateral rotation of the trunk. It also decelerates the trunk in extension, contralateral flexion, ipsolateral rotation, and anterior deceleration of the pelvis.
- Internal Obliques - A deeper muscles that aids in ipsilateral flexion and rotation of the trunk as well as bilateral flexion of the trunk. The IO aids in decoration of extension, contralateral flexion and rotation, plus aids in compression of abdominal contents.
- Transverse Abdominus - Is a compression muscle that aids in forced expiration, stabilization of the lumbar and pelvic regions by controlling rotation and translation forces. The TVA is tied into the thoracolumbar fascia, which aids in the stabilization actions.
- Quadratus Lumborum - Deep low back muscle that is a lateral flexor of the trunk when the pelvis is fixed and lifts the pelvis when the trunk is stabilized. Slightly assists in lumbar extension. Decelerates the actions of side flexion and stabilizes the trunk when upright.
(Information abridged from the book Form and Function by Dr. Evan Osar, 2002)
Just by reading the actions of the muscles described above, it is plain to see the interaction of these muscles when causing and controlling movement. When an athlete is making a quick cut or change of direction, the core musculature is in a role of stabilization and eccentric deceleration so the extremities can move efficiently.
It would be easy to go on for pages and pages discussing the role of the core muscles in athletic performance, but the main purpose of this article is to address the importance of core training as it relates to multi-directional speed.
Exercises for Core Strength and Quicker Athletic Speed
Lunge - Forward with Transverse Torque and Tubing
This is a great exercise in causing the spine to stabilize will the body is in motion. The fact that the body is in a staggered stance forces the transverse plane to be stabilized even greater. Also, the athlete is having to stay upright in the frontal plane while having the tubing attempting to pull them into side flexion. This is a great total core exercise increased by extremity action.
Lunge - Lateral with Bilateral Bungee Arm Drive
Here we have a lateral lunging pattern that needs force production of the left leg due to the opposite pulling action of the tubing. The right side lateral flexors must stabilize the core allowing the left leg to push off and not get a quick left side lateral flexion. Once the lunge initiates, there is a dynamic action of the internal/external obliques to rotate the body to the right. Once rotated to the right, the rectus abdominus as well the external obliques becomes more active to eccentrically decelerate the trunk from back extension. On the recovery, the core musculature must eccentrically decelerate the transverse plane action so it isn’t whipped back by the tubing.
Plank - Standing Cable Hold
This exercise can really mimic the deceleration forces of stopping or cutting if the angle of the leg, closest to the attachment point, is in proper positioning. The trunk is fighting transverse rotation as well as frontal plane flexion. The resistance of the tubing actually fires the muscles as if the athlete were pushing off to shuffle laterally or decelerate lateral movement.
Dynamic Transverse Plane Medicine Ball Catches
The purpose of this exercise is to train the trunk stabilizers in the transverse plane to decelerate and stabilize the pelvis and spine. Obviously, the musculature of the hips, legs and upper body play a huge role, but the core musculature must be able to stabilize when an athlete is cutting in the frontal plane. Also, notice the great angle of the back leg to create body control and aid in deceleration.
Medicine Ball Sagittal Plane Catches
Here the athlete is catching and quickly reversing the action of the ball and throwing it back to his partner. The goal is to train the sagittal plane decelerator to engage to avoid back extension. This action is commonly seen in sports where back pedaling takes place and a quick stop and sprint forward must occur. This can be done in a parallel stance, but it is not as common as with a back pedal action of sport. This is also important athletes like football and baseball where the ball is caught over head.
Put the athlete on the 45 degree back extension bench. Have him start to descend and give him a “stop” command so he must reverse the action. This simply strengthens the erector spinae and posterior chains in the action of being able to stop the body quickly and re-directing motion. Be sure to do this unloaded in the initial stages.
Rope Cable Saw
This is one of my favorite exercises for simulating a cutting action and a turn and run. This is common in shuttle-type running events. This will be seen in sports like basketball, soccer, tennis, football and other court and field sports where quick stopping and starting takes place. In this exercise, we have the forces of the cable causing the body to fight deceleration forces while the plant leg is positioned. Then the exercise becomes dynamic and actively rotates in the transverse plane and into trunk stabilization against side flexion as if turning and running.
These are just a sample of the many core exercises you can include in your program to train for multi-directional speed.
With regard to sets and reps, I generally aim for three to eight reps on each side. I do not want fatigue and therefore poor technique setting in during these exercises. The goal is not necessarily muscular endurance as it is quick stabilization and/or movement. When an athlete must increase his or her ability to cut or change directions, the ability to stabilize the spine and pelvis must happen instantaneously. Remember, the initial goal is resisting rotation, flexion or extension, followed by more dynamic action.
It is without a doubt that athletes who own great natural speed and athleticism will always have an advantage in multi-directional speed. But I have found for years that many of my fastest athletes were not always the best at controlling that natural speed. Without question, there are so many components that allow an athlete be able to change directions quickly. I have found the mistakes many of them make are directly related to the inability to control the core musculature. Using the above mentioned drills help athletes to gain greater body control!