In Gray Cook’s 2010 book Movement, he poses the question: “When the pressure is on, do we manage moving parts or take responsibility for entire movement patterns?” Many professionals understand how to train individual foundational movement patterns like squatting or pushing - "moving parts." However, preparing for more complex “movement patterns” like putting a child in a car seat or driving a golf ball requires advanced skills and specific tools. Asymmetrical Bar Training (ABT) is a unique training method that helps to enhance balance, improve strength and train coordination, while integrating foundational movements to improve one’s performance and durability. This article will identify what ABT is, how it is of benefit to your clients and some basic exercises to help you get started with ABT.
|Image 1: Foundational Movement Integration
- Readers will be able to define Asymmetrical Bar Training.
- Readers will be able to articulate at least three benefits their clients will experience by engaging in Asymmetrical Bar Training.
- Readers will be exposed to three introductory ABT exercises that are suited for any level client.
What is ABT?
ABT uses a rigid bar with resistance on only one side to create an uneven or unbalanced load. The resistance can come in several forms: cable pulley resistance, pneumatic resistance or elastic resistance. The hallmark of this type of training is that the load is always asymmetrical in nature (forcing users to change hand positions to address both left and right sides). This point can’t be emphasized enough. Asymmetries in mobility, stability and overall coordination not only lead to decreased athletic ability; they create muscle imbalances that, over time, can cause traumatic or chronic pathology (Kendall et al., 1983). For instance, it has been estimated that 90% of professional golfers suffer from low back pain and that back pain is one of the leading disabilities on the PGA Tour (Girasole et al., 2012). The golf swing is a one-sided movement pattern that can create asymmetries which negatively impact stability, mobility and general movement. ABT training is a way to counteract these negative impacts of the one-sided golf swing by engaging in similar spiral movements from the opposite side. To reiterate, as strength and conditioning professionals, we should not just concern ourselves with the “moving parts” (strength, stability and coordination at single joints or in single planes of motion) but our end goal should focus on enhancing general “movement patterns” that are multi-planar and create balance from both sides of the body. Additionally, because of the asymmetrical load, regardless if one is pushing, pulling, squatting, etc., he or she must control rotational forces in the transverse plane (making every exercise multi-planar).
|Image 2: High to Low Chop
Although ABT training has been around for some time in the physical therapy community (community that has recognized the benefits of spiral and rotational movement patterns used to enhance sports performance and rehabilitate muscular and neurological disorders), it is only now emerging as a more accessible and viable training modality in the general fitness space. When used appropriately, asymmetrical bar training is a novel and effective way to introduce more specialized movement pattern training into your client’s strength and conditioning programming. Now that you know what ABT is, let's look at some of its specific benefits.
Benefits of ABT
Although the benefits of Asymmetrical Bar Training are numerous, the focus of this article will be on ABT’s ability to positively impact or enhance posture, rotational control and H.I.I.T.
|Image 3: Neutral Spine Posture
Good posture results from a precise balance of muscles surrounding the spine, which creates a “plumb line” bisecting the ears, shoulders and hips. Postural faults that persist not only give rise to discomfort, pain or disability (Kendall et. al., 1983), they also diminish performance in activities of daily living and sports. When the user grasps an ABT device and accepts tension on the system, there is a multi-planar destabilizing force transmitted through the body. When a destabilizing force acts on the trunk, a proper temporal and spatial recruitment of the core musculature is required to protect the spine (Panjabi, 1992). Thus, every ABT exercise becomes a destabilizing force helping to increase core muscle activation in order to maintain a plumb line posture. One might argue that many traditional exercises are destabilizing postural exercises. For instance, a barbell squat with overhead press certainly challenges posture in the sagittal plane and to a lesser degree in the frontal plane. In comparison, a squat overhead press performed using an ABT system challenges posture in all three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal and transverse (see Image 4 below).
|Image 4: ABT Overhead Squat Press
This is not to say that a traditional squat with overhead press is a substandard exercise. This is merely a demonstration of how a traditional movement pattern can be modified to challenge balance in multiple planes of motion, recruit the anti-rotators around the spine, and help enhance proper posture.
If we look at a typical foundational movement training model, relatively equal time is spent squatting, lunging, stepping, pushing, pulling and rotating. However, if we assess movements seen in daily life (placing a child in a car seat, shoveling snow, pull-starting a lawnmower) or movements seen in sports (hitting a baseball, driving a golf ball, kicking a soccer ball) we notice that rotation or anti-rotation is involved in almost every real-life movement. The argument could be made that typical training programs don’t have a commensurate amount of anti-rotation and rotational training relative to daily life movement patterns.
|Image 5: Power of Rotation
ABT training systems are uniquely designed to address rotation and spiral movement patterns seen in daily life and sport. Rotational forces from an ABT system are constantly trying to twist the user back towards the anchor or pulley; this force has to be stabilized with the anti-rotators in the spine and hips and is what spine researcher Dr. Stuart McGill calls a “torsional buttressing task” (McGill, 2010). Simply standing sideways and holding the bar perpendicular to the anchor or pulley is an excellent torsional buttressing task that challenges the client to anti-rotate in order to maintain proper alignment (see Image 6 below). McGill recommends a 10 second on, 3-5 second off cycle for 3 repetitions per side.
|Image 6: The Importance of Anti-Rotation
Once your client has the ability to control rotational forces, the production of rotational loads can be addressed. A cylinder rotation exercise is a rotational ABT movement, which involves the pelvis, spine and shoulders rotating in unison away from the anchor/pulley. Note: this is not a “twisting” motion through the spine; instead this is a rotation that occurs at the hips (see Image 7 below). There has been evidence that repetitive spinal twisting, especially in the lumbar spine, can delaminate the annulus of the spinal discs and lead to chronic or traumatic injuries (Aultman et al., 2004). Cylinder rotation exercises are a great way to engage the core, protect the spine and mobilize the hips in the transverse plane.
|Image 7: Cylinder Rotation
Finally, ABT is a novel and effective modality for H.I.I.T. High Intensity Interval Training has increased in popularity since researches have shown that it has been effective in improving both VO2max (Tabata et al., 1996) and burning more fat (Tremblay et al., 1994) relative to traditional slower steady-state aerobic exercise. Because there is a direct correlation between heart rate and muscular recruitment, the more muscles recruited for any given exercise the better suited that exercise is for HIIT. The destabilizing force experienced with ABT recruits muscles throughout the kinetic chain and when coupled with speed of movement creates a tremendous HIIT environment. An exercise like the 90 degree jump press (in which the user jumps perpendicular to the anchor while simultaneously pressing the bar off his or her chest) elevates the heart rate, challenges agility and unloads the joints (relative to a box jump exercise). *This exercise is best performed, using pneumatic or elastic resistance ABT.
It is always recommended to receive proper education prior to using any unfamiliar modality. There are several educational offerings and dvd’s pertaining to ABT which introduce the basic science, progressions and regressions needed for safely introducing ABT exercises. However, following are three basic progressions that, if performed slowly with low loads, should get you successfully started using any Asymmetrical Bar Training device.
Squat Press Progression
- Isometric Hold (facing away from anchor/pulley): Start with feet in an athletic stance and arms extended off chest (perform isometric hold for 10 seconds, then switch sides)
- Chest Press: Maintain stance and posture while pressing bar off chest (12 repetitions, then switch sides)
- Squat Press: Squat down with bar resting on chest. Press bar off chest during elevation (12 repetitions, then switch sides)
Squat Row Progression
- Isometric Hold (facing anchor/pulley): Start with feet in an athletic stance, shoulder blades retracted and depressed, and bar on chest (perform isometric hold for 10 seconds, then switch sides)
- Row: Maintain stance and posture while rowing bar toward chest (12 repetitions, then switch sides)
- Squat Row: Squat down with arms extended, row bar towards chest during elevation (12 repetitions, then switch sides)
Pallof Press Progression
- Isometric Hold (facing sideways to anchor/pulley): Start with feet in an athletic stance and bar held perpendicular to floor (perform isometric hold for 10 seconds, then switch sides)
- Pallof Press: Maintain stance, posture and vertical orientation of bar while pressing bar straight off chest (12 repetitions, then switch sides)
- Pallof Press (w/ squat): Squat down with arms flexed and bar close to chest. Perform the Pallof Press during elevation (12 repetitions, then switch sides)
Asymmetrical Bar Training is an emerging new modality in the fitness industry. Helping to improve posture, enhance rotational strength and offering a novel alternative to traditional H.I.I.T. exercises, ABT is a viable training modality - which can help trainers become more creative and effective with their programming. Because of the unbalanced load, ABT combines multiple planes of motion helping to integrate the body, balance left to right asymmetries and challenge complex movement patterns.
For a complete demonstration of the exercise progressions and video summary, watch this video:
Aultman, C.D., Drake, J., Callaghan, J.P., and McGill, S.M. (2004). The effect of static torsion on the compression strength of the spine: An invitro analysis using a porcine spine model. Spine, 29(15), E304-309.
Cook, G. (2010). Movement: Functional Movement Systems: Screening Assessment and Corrective Strategies. Aptos, CA: On Target Publications.
Girasole, G., Hartman, C. (2012). Sporting Activities and the Lumbar Spine. Journal of the Spine Research Foundation, 7, 21-25.
Kendall, F., McCreary, E., & Provance, P. (1983). Muscles Testing and Function. Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins.
McGill, S. (2010). Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32(3) 33-46.
Panjabi, M. (1992). The stabilizing system of the spine. Part 1: Function, Dysfunction, Adaptation, and Enhancement. Journal of Spine Disorders, 5, 383-389.
Tabata I., Nishimura K., Kouzaki M., et al. (1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise, 28(10), 1327-1330.
Tremblay A., Simoneau J.A., Bouchard, C. (1994). Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism. Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental, 43(7): 814-818.