What makes training really functional? While there are so many different definitions, I believe that functional training is, and should be, a very specific system of training. That means it adheres to particular concepts, ideas, and variables. One of the more important and yet neglected concepts of functional training is that of varying planes of motion.
While the planes of motion may not be new to many, the systemized approach to progressing planes of motion is something that not too many discuss. While we have the sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes of motion, we don’t typically look at how we move from one program to another.
In our Dynamic Variable Resistance Training system (DVRT™) we progress our exercises and programs from stable to unstable. While most will refer to instability as typically to only varying surfaces, DVRT expands instability options to the following;
- Plane of Motion
- Load Position
- Body Position
- Stability of Implement
Much of the research in instability focuses only on unstable surfaces and such research implies that it is doubtful in its effectiveness in producing greater muscle activity, especially in the core or stabilizers (Willardson et al., 2009). The primary reason that this happens is that the instability is so great that the body cannot produce force and is trying to “survive.” The above training variables have been shown to be more effective in having greater muscle activity, even in light of often using lighter loads (Behm & Colado, 2012).
Like any other training variable, instability needs to be incremental and progressive. When it comes to planes of motion, our levels of stability go from the most stable (sagittal) to the most unstable (transverse). This progression is outlined in this manner because of the complexity of movement involved in such drills which includes the difficult skill of not just producing forces, but resisting them as well.
A large part of rotational training is learning to resist excessive motion, especially in the core. More and more, we are discovering that the role of the core is more to resist than to create motion. In her book, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, physical therapist, Sahrmann (2002), states, "during most daily activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk…A large percentage of low back problems occur because the abdominal muscles are not maintaining tight control over the rotation between the pelvis and the spine at the L5- S1 level." (p.71)
Rotational training is not only a performance need for many athletes, but the health and longevity of most of our general population clients as well. What makes rotational training so important above and beyond performance? All transverse plane movements require strong internal hip rotation as the dominant source of the force and power development. Several studies have correlated low back pain to lack of internal hip rotation (Sadeghisani, et al., 2015; Van Dillen, et al., 2008).
What makes rotational training such a challenge for so many clients is the coordination and mobility that is required to create such action in force application into the ground and transmitted by strong hip internal rotation. That means that before we can successfully perform any full body rotational based movements, we should screen if the individual possesses the ability to internally rotate the hip.
Evaluating Internal Hip Rotation
There are many means in evaluating internal hip rotation, but I wanted to provide a simple, practical means in which anyone can do a simple screen of internal hip rotation. That is why I have found the shinbox position to be a great drill, both to improve and evaluate internal hip rotation. It can be used as a warm-up, screen, and progressive drill. The key though is to see if someone can comfortably sit in the shinbox position as well as asymmetries.
Improving Internal Hip Rotation
Like the evaluation of internal hip rotation, there is no shortage of mobility and flexibility drills to work on improving one’s movement in this pattern. However, over the years I have found the most effective means come in more of activation of the core. If we combine specific drills for internal hip rotation motion while, at the same time, stimulating greater core activation, the improvements occur more rapidly than working on the hip alone.
This makes sense when you consider that when we create greater spinal stability, we achieve greater extremity mobility. Spinal expert, Dr. Stuart McGill, goes to the next level by stating, "proximal stiffness enhances distal mobility and athleticism” (n.d., para. 6). Therefore, combining these mobility movements with specific core activation can cause rather dramatic improvements in range of motion in a short amount of time.
Progressing Rotational Movements
As physical therapist, Gray Cook says (2012), “we do not put fitness on movement dysfunction” (para. 1). Establishing good movement capability is essential to having success and longevity. Once we do so, knowing how to properly progress our training is essential. Especially because rotational training seems to be only relegated to cable/band chops and medicine ball throws.
When power based movements, such as medicine ball training, are the first introduction to rotational training this can be seen as a major leap in progressive training. Just as applying excessive load or volume can negatively impact one’s training and movement development, applying too much instability in the form of changing planes of motion and going to explosive movements can impede proper skill development.
What does one do then? We can use the variables of load position and speed to build a systematic approach to building and challenging one’s rotational skills.
One reason that horizontal cable/band chops are popular in teaching rotational exercises is because the load is in a stable load position. This means that with using slower speeds, we can engrain the rotational pattern (especially the footwork) to the client.
While many think the horizontal chop is about all we can do in rotational training before introducing speed, but there are at least three other positions to load the body in rotation. One often overlooked is going overhead. General overhead training is not only a means of screening upper body mobility, but core stability as well. This becomes amplified as we move the pattern to the transverse plane.
Going to an overhead press in rotation challenges fascial lines more specifically, our upper body mobility, and ability to create motion and stability at the same time. The use of overhead rotational movements can be a great precursor to any explosive and high speed rotational exercises.
As we progress loading position, we also begin to integrate more joints into the equation. Whenever we integrate more joints into a movement we increase the complexity of the movement. Using the hip hinge while in progressive rotational exercises can be a challenging, but an important means of adding greater purpose to one’s training. Of course our major concern is to not create lumbar rotation, but to maintain our core stability as we move in these different patterns.
The Role of Speed
Speed is often the last variable we introduce because, in most explosive and power based drills, the option to move “kinda” fast isn’t available. Meaning that explosive training is possibly the least progressive of our instability variables and, therefore, should be only used when great proficiency in the pattern in the above ways is firmly established. The most common compensation when speed is introduced too early into training is lack of movement of the feet and therefore greater spinal rotation, which we want to avoid.
We don’t blindly apply speed elements to our rotational training; rather, we move through our load position progressions once again. When we add instability (speed) in one form, we want to add stability (load position) in another.
Watch the below video for a deeper look into progressing rotation movements:
The Power of Progression
Real functional training is about constantly trying to move movement efficiency. We can achieve this without a system of training movement in all planes of motion. The goal of functional training is looking beyond the gym to the movements we perform in everyday life and sport. In doing so, we can’t ignore the fact that humans are largely rotational beings.
Instead of blindly applying rotation, having a thought process, system, and solution strategy to effectively implementing rotation creates a more successful environment for both client and coach.
Willardson, J.M., Fontana, F.E. & Bressel, E. (2009). Effect of surface stability on core muscle activity for dynamic resistance exercises. International Journal of Sports Physiology Performance. 2009 Mar;4(1):97-109.
Behm, D. & Colado, J. C. (2012). The Effectiveness of Resistance Training Using Unstable Surfaces and Devices for Rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2012 Apr; 7(2): 226–241.
Sahrmann, S. (2001). Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes 1st Edition. Mosby; 1st edition, September 4, 2001
Sadeghisani M., Manshadi F.D., Kalantari K.K., Rahimi A., Namnik N., Karimi M.T., & Oskouei A. (2015). Correlation between Hip Rotation Range-of-Motion Impairment and Low Back Pain. A Literature Review. Ortopedia Traumatologia Rehabilitacja. 2015 Oct 16;17(5):455-62. doi: 10.5604/15093492.1186813.
Van Dillen, L. R., Bloom, N. J., Gombatto, S. B., & Susco, T. M. (2008). Hip Rotation Range of Motion in People With and Without Low Back Pain Who Participate in Rotation-Related Sports. Physical Therapy Sport. 2008 May; 9(2): 72–81.
McGill, S. Why Everyone Needs Core Training. Perform Better. Retrieved from https://www.performbetter.com/
Cook, G. (2012). Movement Principle #7. Gray Cook. Retrieved from http://graycook.com/?p=1075