For physical trainers who work with individual athletes or athlete groups involved in striking, punching, throwing, and hitting sports, implementing a functional training pathway that focuses on pelvic sequencing can greatly enhance the athlete's technical development and provide what can be termed as “fuel for the function." This article will equip trainers with a training pathway of generalized movement techniques that can be used in functional and function "transfer" sessions with their athletes or clients to improve propulsive performance.
For the sake of continuity, the article will speak in terms of “athletes,” but the physical trainer should not consider these techniques to be used exclusively with elite athletes…in fact, they are equally applicable to all clients and age groups.
What is Pelvic Sequencing?
Striking, punching, throwing and hitting sports and activities require the body to impart force via momentum. This can also be described as creating propulsion. The propulsive force is usually expressed by the arms and hands, often via a racquet, bat or club, and then transferred to a ball, puck or opponent, etc.
A distinct movement chain can be recognized as the body sequentially recruits its major segments to load the upper limb. Within striking sports such as golf, baseball and tennis, this chain reaction of movement is often termed the “kinetic or kinematic sequence.” In most bio-mechanical studies, a proximal to distal sequencing of the body's component segments is described. Kreighbaum and Barthels (1985) describe how this sequencing imparts speed and momentum to the body’s distal segments as,“The kinetic link principle involves a series of linked segments with one end fixed and the other end open, generally getting smaller as they progress. The small distal segment can be made to travel extremely fast by the sequential acceleration and deceleration of the body segments.” This fundamental sequencing has been described and demonstrated in more recent “sport-specific” studies, including "Body Segment Sequencing and Timing in Golf," published in International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching (Neal et al., 2007).
One common factor seen in almost all propulsive sequencing is a significant degree of pelvic rotation “leading out” the complete sequence, with the rotation directed towards the target line, strike point or impact line. This powerful initiation move, primarily seen within the transverse plane, could be thought of as the “engine” of propulsion. Successful striking and throwing skills flow from this move.
Baseball, tennis and golf may be three examples of entirely different striking sports, but they demonstrate recognizable similarities between pelvic sequencing and subsequent body biomechanics. Coaches, researchers and players involved in all three sports have historically emphasized the role this functional fundamental plays, as discussed below.
Baseball expert Ted Williams, in his classic work The Science of Hitting (1986), states, “The hips set the swing in motion…You have to have the hips leading and then out of the way.” This can be seen clearly at the point of impact in the photo on the right. The pelvis has already rotated and cleared to the left, with the arms, hands and bat lagging behind this move. Also, at this point the pelvis rotation decelerates to almost a standstill in order to sequentially “sling shot” the arms and bat through.
In the Martina Hingis forehand sequence pictured on the right, we can see a more subtle, but still essential, pelvic rotary lead-out. As she approaches the ball, the pelvis closes into right rotation. The racket is retracted as the right leg plants. The pelvis then makes a positive rotary move to the left and opens out. The arm somewhat lags behind this move, with the racket lagging even more via wrist extension. The pelvis continues its path into left rotation as the arm and racket are fired around the stabilized right leg.
Landlinger, Lindiger, Stoggl, Wagner and Mueller (2010) comprehensively studied the tennis forehand kinematic sequence and demonstrated that in elite technique “the hips must have started the counter-clockwise rotation towards the ball earlier than the shoulders; therefore, probably increasing the pre-stretch on the trunk.” In their conclusion, they state, “Results suggest that coaches should especially focus on proper pelvis and trunk rotation in order to improve the technique of their players. In terms of strength and conditioning, coaches should keep the principle of kinematic affinity between tennis groundstroke techniques and strength training exercises in mind.”
Images, The Fundamentals of Hogan, David Leadbetter, 2000.
Golfing great Ben Hogan likened the initiation of a golf downswing to a throwing action. The images above show how the shoulders and arm lag behind the initial move of the pelvis and then are almost whiplashed through as the pelvis decelerates. Hogan demonstrates how he transfers this feel into his golf swing.
In his own still much-respected book, Five Lessons (1957), Hogan writes “imagine an elastic strip fastened to the front of the left hip bone.” He goes on to describe this pulling the pelvis back into left rotation at the downswing phase, pictured above.
The range, rate and velocity of this pelvic lead-out rotation does vary within sporting actions and also within the athletes who perform these moves. Some show an exaggerated move, others are more subtle. Compare the pictures of a young Tiger Woods, taken from his book How I Play Golf, with those from Annika Sorenstam’s Golf Annika's Way. You can see in the two images on the left, Woods employs an aggressive firing of the pelvis into left rotation with shoulder girdle, arms and club lagging way behind. Whereas Sorenstam, in the images on the right, has a much quieter action…rotation has occurred, but its range is diminished compared to Woods'.
The Exercise Pathway
It is not within the scope of this article to discuss the biomechanical variation of pelvic lead-out technique within any one particular sport. However, it does appear to be a functional constant within propulsive and striking movements. It is highly emphasized by some, less so by others, but almost always recognizably present. If this is the case, then it would seem appropriate that the personal trainer could employ training pathways that can facilitate and support this “constant” so that the athlete can take advantage of this within their technique and skills development. As discussed in the introduction, this training can be thought of as the foundation that supports the function. How the athlete goes on to adapt and utilize this foundation may vary, but extending their general motor competence with appropriate pelvic propulsive training should be a core component of the overall programming.
The motor skills development outlined here is purposefully generic in nature and the sequencing demonstrated is essentially not sport-specific. It has proved successful with golf athletes, and in this case is filmed at an elite golf academy. Understandably, there may be a flavor of golf motor patterns displayed by the model, however this same exercise pathway has been successfully applied to other striking and throwing sports.
Movement Preparation and Warm-Up
The exercise pathway is preceded by a thorough prep and warm-up. Specific preparation will include:
- Active hip internal rotation mobilization with the upper thorax stabilized via crucifix lying.
- Active upper spine and thoracolumbar fascia mobilization and postural holds.
- Variations of lumbopelvic stability facilitation.
This introductory phase establishes range of movement particularly within the recognizable areas of structural and postural hypomobility that influence pelvic movement, such as the hip rotators, deep hip flexors and thoracolumbar fascia. It also re-invigorates neuromuscular control of this available range.
It should be followed by a generalized and more dynamic total body warm-up sequence.
This exercise is known as a pelvic timing clap. The athlete lays in crucifix with knees bent, heels together. Keeping the feet together, the knees and pelvis are rolled to the left, but the head counter-rotates to the right. Tension and torsion are built up within the spine and across the anterior chest into the right arm. The knees complete their move to the floor with the athlete feeling that they are leaving their right arm behind them until the natural tension built fires the arm over the chest to clap the opposite hand. This exercise is best performed with almost a relaxed and lazy technique.
The exercise establishes a sensation of pelvic lead-out and upper body/limb lag. It provides a separation stretch between pelvic girdle and shoulder girdle and introduces the motor theme that the pelvis drives the rest of the body in a chain reaction.
Quality and appropriate segmental timing is more important than numbers. However, at least 10 reps are recommended (repeat both sides).
This exercise is also a very useful warm-up choice prior to striking or throwing practice.
Pelvic Torsion Press
The torsion press is performed in the last exercise’s finish position (the two can naturally combine in sequence). The athlete pushes their top hand forwards as far beyond their lower hand as they can as at the same time they raise both clamped knees up. The abdominal obliques, quadratus lumborum, serratus anterior and lateral gluteals are all presented with a strength and stability challenge. Later in the pathway, these will be recruited in a more plyo-orientated “stretch-shorten” manner.
Perform approximately 2 sets of 20 each side with short duration holds.
Standing Pelvic Patterning
Both of these standing pelvic patterning exercises are motor-patterning oriented. The athlete is developing controlled pelvic rotary movement on a fixed upper body.
In the first exercise shown above, the athlete stands hands on head and elbow to a wall. The fixed elbow is his point of feedback; it must not move and the head should remain forward. A dynamic stance is taken, knees slightly flexed, and the athlete drives their pelvis into rotation away from the wall, and then returns. The knees will naturally follow this movement with counter flexion and extension, although the knee furthest from the wall is encouraged not to snap into hyper-extension. Multiple reps are performed rhythmically.
The second exercise is an extension of the first. Stand facing the wall, with the feet slightly open to the direction of proposed pelvic turn. In this case the back of the left arm is laid along the wall and the right hand fixed over the left palm. A pelvic “initiation” turn is performed with the positioning giving the feel of left arm and upper body lag. A strong torsional stretch will be felt in the trunk…the “loading” stretch that will lead to an unloading shorten during a correctly executed propulsive pattern.
Right-handed striking athletes will feel that the examples pictured above will feel much more comfortable than the opposing side version. Regardless, it is almost certainly best to train for symmetry.
Cross Body Pulls
The preparation phase of range, stability and motor rehearsal are now put together in a total body pattern. In a dynamic stance, the athlete grasps a band/pulley and smoothly loads to the right. The pelvis will follow this load and also rotate right, but should be significantly out-rotated by the shoulder girdle above. At the point that the left arm fully straightens and loads, the athlete smoothly drives the pelvis into left rotation. The pelvis leads out the uncoiling action of the cross body pull until it completes its move and fires the lagging left arm through.
Enough resistance is needed to load up this total body action, but not so much that the effort needed to overcome it corrupts the pattern described above. As the athlete’s competence with this pattern improves, the resistance can be increased.
An extension to this exercise is to further optimize the sequencing. The athlete is still asked to fully complete the pre-load with a full shoulder turn and straightening of the left arm, and the initiation of the pelvic reversal to the left comes just before this point is reached. In essence, the separation between pelvis and shoulder girdle momentarily increases, therefore further loading the “elastic” stretch-shorten capabilities of the trunk musculature. This has been termed the “X factor-stretch” (Cheetham, 2000)
Repeat for symmetry on both sides with 10 - 20 reps.
This sequencing move is encouraged throughout the remainder of the exercise pathway where appropriate.
Split Stance Punch
Next in the pathway is a variation of a classic band or pulley punch press. The athlete has left leg forward and right arm fully loaded back against the resistance. Once again he initiates the punch press with a rotation of the pelvis to the left. The trunk and arm then follow this into the fully extended punch press, held for a second, and then the athlete reloads smoothly back into the start position. The timing and sequencing of the movements is important. The athlete can initially use a slow tempo and light resistance in order to establish a pelvis-trunk-arm sequence. Then speed is increased, and finally loads can be increased.
Repeat for symmetry on both sides with 10 - 20 reps.
The purpose of this exercise is to emphasize and facilitate the pre-load or pre-stretch component of a propulsion pattern, which is most effectively demonstrated in the middle picture of the above sequence.
The athlete holds a medicine ball well in front and then lunges forward onto the right leg. At the same time the medicine ball is swept back fully loading the spine and shoulders. These two movements are synchronized to create a smooth counter coil of the trunk. The lunge has effectively driven the pelvis around in relative terms to the left with the trunk counter coiling into an “x-stretch” to the right (it is this component of the exercise that the athlete is asked to “feel” and develop in regard to range). The athlete’s momentum is traveling forward and the throw is completed by continuing the “walk through lunge” with the left leg at the same time as firing the ball forward into the throw.
The dynamics of this exercise take advantage of an accentuated pre-load, and most athletes are quite surprised about how much power they can develop with this technique.
Once correct technique is established, increase the speed and intensity, repeat in sets of 5 on both sides; using 3-4 kg balls will be sufficient. Develop the exercise carefully into full power throws.
Band Baseball Swings
The next progression is similar to the “cross body pulls,” however a double-handed baseball pull is performed. At this stage of the progression, this exercise is primarily aimed at developing speed and timing within the athlete’s pelvic sequencing. There is always the option to briefly regress the exercise pathway to the “Standing Pelvic Patterning” in order to re-establish good timing before challenging the pattern with speed. Bands or pulley systems capable of safe speed work are used. Note in the middle image how the now-established pattern of the pelvis leading out the trunk and arms is performed. Once technique is established, high speed is encouraged in a plyometric manner, using the band to assist the pre-load and then exploding back against the resistance.
In order to maintain high quality and speed numbers are kept low with a significant rest between sets.
Note: As the speed and dynamism increases, potential compensations may be exposed. Athletes most commonly compensate by adding too much of a frontal plane component to hip action, rather than being transverse plane-dominant. This manifests itself in a "slide" of the pelvis and elevation of the lead hip. If this occurs with your athlete, regress back to the basic patterning as suggested above, or also revisit the athlete’s foundation skills with lumbo-pelvic stability training.
Plyo Ball Throws
The development and patterning work is now taken into a full propulsive throw exercise. Essentially this is a basic side-on (180 degree) transverse plane 3-4 kg medicine ball throw, but the established pelvic sequencing must be demonstrated.
- The pre-load seen in the second image is positive and full range with the shoulder girdle out-rotating the pelvis.
- In the third image the pelvis reverses from its right rotation into left rotation in the established lead-out sequence.
- With practice the athlete learns how to fire into left pelvis rotation just before the ball completes its full pre-load, once again accentuating the “x-factor stretch.” At that instant, the shoulders are still rotating to the right as the pelvis initiates to the left.
- The athlete hangs onto the extra elastic load as the pelvis continues to out-rotate the trunk and arm and then slows and stops to slingshot the arms--and, finally, the ball--forward.
- The trail foot can rotate into the release, but no loss of balance or step should be seen. (The above golfer shows good sequencing skills, but his somewhat golf-inspired technique can be excused).
- Build the speed and intensity to full power throws with short sets.
Asking an athlete to perform a plyo throw with specific sequencing such as this without the previous development pathway is likely to fail and could lead to injury. The athlete needs to develop the ranges of movement, stability and motor patterning that support the accentuated pelvic sequencing or they could be vulnerable to spinal or shoulder injury. Likewise, simply hammering away at sets of a poorly timed and sequenced throws is not an efficient way of developing propulsive power. Developing competence via the pathway described will be more successful.
The final exercise facilitates the transfer of the sequencing from the more consciously derived techniques described into a more spontaneous sub-conscious expression. The plyo throw is used again but the athlete has a feeder partner who hands him 5 balls in quick succession at hip height. The throws are still expected to be high quality, but the repetition and convenient feeds allows them to drop into a rhythm and naturally develop a more spontaneous chain reaction of movement.
Pairs can rotate, building their teamwork and intensity into full power sets. Loads do not have to be high: 2-4 kg balls will suffice.
- The exercise descriptions have indicated rep and load suggestions where appropriate.
- The personal trainer is advised to consider the exercise progression outlined as motor competence pathway…focus on competence before progression.
- An athlete should be both competent and familiar with foundation lumbo-pelvic mobility and stability training prior to initiating this propulsion sequencing pathway.
- Once established, this motor competence should not be taken for granted…it is always useful to revisit and re-invigorate core motor skills regularly within a client's overall programming
This pathway is primarily used to develop a foundation motor skill that can then feed forward into high performance movement during propulsive activities. The physical trainer can play a pivotal role in helping develop the motor competence that supports this function. How it is expressed by the athlete/client will depend upon the variables of sport-specific biomechanics, technique and, in some cases, the coaching philosophies with which the client is engaged.
- Cheetham, P.J., Martin, P.E., Mottram, R.E. and St. Laurent, B.F. (2000). The importance of stretching the x-factor in the golf downswing. 2000 Pre-Olympic Congress Sports Med. And Phys. Ed. Int. Congress on Sports Science.
- Hogan, B. (1957). Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons. Fireside.
- Kreighbaum, E. and Barthels, K.M. (1985). Biomechanics: a qualitative approach for studying human movement. Burgess Publishing Company.
- Landlinger, J., Lindiger, S., Stoggl, T., Wagner, H. & Mueller, E. (2010). Key factors and timing patterns in the tennis forehand of different skill levels. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine.
- Leadbetter, D. (2000). The Fundamentals of Hogan. Doubleday.
- Neal, R., Lumsden, R., Holland, M. & Mason, B. (2007). Body Segment Sequencing and Timing in Golf. Annual Review of Golf Coaching. Multi-Science Publications Brentwood.
- Sorenstam, A. (2005). Golf Annika’s Way. Aurum Press Ltd.
- Williams, T. (1986). The Science of Hitting. Fireside.
- Woods, T. (2001). How I Play Golf. Little, Brown and Company.