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Rotational Explosiveness Training

Developing explosive power in athletes has often been synonymous with Olympic style lifting techniques. Olympic lifts and their variations have been used for years to teach developing athletes total body coordination, fast twitch muscle fiber explosiveness, and triple extension: extension of the ankles, knees and hips. Progressions for the Olympic lifts and their variations (clean and press, clean and jerk, and snatch), have been thoughtfully broken down into their component parts for ease of teaching and assimilation. Progressing in Olympic lifting hinges on learning the movement patterns, rehearsal of the patterns, then performance of the patterns with progressive overload which forces a speed component. Olympic lifting is a way for high-level athletes, and even weekend warriors, to "bridge the gap" between the general strength phase of training and sport specific strength training (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Athletic Development Paradigm

General strength training includes power lifting exercises such as the bench press, squat and dead-lift, while sport specific training encompasses specific skill movements that are directly geared toward one’s individual sport. Although Olympic lifts are an important part of movement training and explosive power, they have a sagittal plane bias which can result in neglect of the transverse plane when used exclusively in strength and conditioning training. 

The body is divided anatomically into three planes of motion: the sagittal plane, the frontal plane and the transverse or horizontal plane (Figure 2). Athletes perform in all three planes simultaneously which means that enhancing your strength and conditioning program to include techniques that strengthen all three planes will result in a stronger athlete. This article will illustrate ways to modify Olympic lifts to avoid the sagittal plane bias and highlight techniques to generate explosive power training in the transverse plane.

Figure 2. Anatomical Planes

If we assess the kinesiology of motion during athletic events we find that the demands of sports are multi-dimensional. Movement occurs in all three planes of motion simultaneously and our bodies must respond in milliseconds to a rapidly changing environment. As Gray Cook says, "Movement is what ultimately defines great athletes."

Let's analyze some specific movements further: throwing, running, kicking, striking, and swinging all develop their force through rotational toque. When an athlete throws, he or she 'coils' the body and produces energy that transfers from the lower kinetic chain through the core and is realized in the upper kinetic chain as the ball is released. This energy comes in the form of rotational torque and gives us velocity in throwing or force when striking. Based on current functional training theory, it is believed that sport-specific training should closely mimic the sport itself. So, while Olympic style lifting is great for developing explosive power, the traditional lifts are limited to uni-dimensional techniques that do not have maximum crossover to the multi-dimensional movements required in sports.

Recognizing this, the strength and conditioning commuity has modified traditional Olympic lifts to make them more sport specific. For instance, the 'clean and press' or 'snatch' can be performed with one hand using a dumbbell or kettlebell. The asymmetrical load instantly challenges the body to prevent rotation in the transverse plane and side-bending in the frontal plane while the lift is performed in the sagittal plane (Figure 3).

Figure 3. One Arm Snatch

The one arm clean and jerk is also more sport specific because it utilizes foot work and explosiveness in a split stance. Adding footwork, such as seen in the snatch, helps maintain the athlete's center of gravity, balance and subsequent power. Further, by using only one arm, traditional Olympic lifts become more versatile and functional. At the same time, rotary forces come to resolution once the weight is overhead which reduces rotational stress. 

Forces commonly seen in Olympic lifting are created by gravity; gravity works beautifully to challenge muscles in the sagittal and frontal plane, but doesn’t work well to challenge muscles in the transverse plane. To simplify these concepts lets assess two movements as shown in Figures 4 and 5.

Figure 4. Extension and rotation Figure 5. Extension, resistance and rotation

Figure 4 illustrates a wrestler elevating their opponent and preparing for a rearward throw: a similar movement to the one arm snatch in terms of rotational stress. The wrestler is firing his hip and spinal extensors as well as his rotators with maximal effort. Figure 5 illustrates a football player driving into his opponent on the line of scrimmage. The football player uses synergistic contractions of several core muscle groups, including the abdominals and hip extensors to prevent his spine from going into extension and rotation.

The physical forces the football player experiences in this example are quite different than the wrestler and conditioning is difficult to replicate even with the modified Olympic lifts. The forces can be simulated with heavy resistance sport cords which are oriented in the transverse plane, loaded from one side of the body and performed at high speeds, see Figure 6. The cords can also be oriented to provide tension loads to the posterior aspect of the body and challenge the pulling muscles as demonstrated in Figure 7. An explosive "hop," can be added to further increase the powerful nature of the lift and to increase metabolic demands of the exercise.

Figure 6. One arm, split stance, push press Figure 7. One arm, squat row

One final way to supplement Olympic style lifting in the transverse plane is to drastically increase the length of the lever arm. Devices such as the RIP-COREFX™ and Gray Cook Cable Bar are specifically designed to maximize transverse plane torque generation in ground based positions as shown in Figure 8. The nearly 4 foot lever bar forces maximal core contraction of the abdominals and low back to "lock" the spine into a neutral position. With the spine safely ‘locked’ the athlete uses lower extremity pivot mechanics and the powerful rotator muscles of the hips to perform movement and develop power.

Figure 8. Brenden Schaub: Pro MMA Fighter

Pioneering researchers in spinal mechanics, like Dr. Stuart McGill, advocate minimal spinal movement during training. Dr. McGill argues that if athletes can create a "super-stiffness" in the core musculature then they reduce energy leaks and decrease degenerative conditions caused by repetitive flexion/extension and rotational loading patterns. Devices specifically designed to maximize transverse plane torque train movement patterns to become fluid, coordinated and balanced in the face of high transverse rotational stress. Additionally, the push/pull of the upper extremities while using such devices enhances the cross extensor reflex in the body. This reflex typifies how our bodies move in a reciprocal fashion: When we flex one shoulder, the opposite hip flexes as shown in the horizontal front strike depicted in Figure 9. The left shoulder of this UFC contender is flexing and the right hip is flexing.

Figure 9. Elliot Marshall: UFC Light Heavyweight Contender

The competitive nature of athletics today dictates that training methodologies must continually adapt and evolve. Although Olympic lifts have significant importance in an athlete's strength and conditioning program, trainers and strength coaches must be creative and augment these lifts with movements that accentuate the transverse plane of motion. Heavy resistance sport cords and cable bars can be used in complexes or circuits which challenge the athlete's movement, balance, and power from unorthodox angles. Trainers can easily introduce transverse plane training by performing sport cord split stance punches (Figure 6), and squat stance rows (Figure 7). Start with 1 to 2 sets of 10 to 12 reps, three times per week as supplemental exercises. Once the athlete can maintain a neutral spine posture with the sport cord punches/rows, progress to using a core training bar as demonstrated in Figures 10 and 11.

Figure 10. Gray Cook Cable Bar Press Figure 11. RIP-COREFX Row

Once initial progressions become fluid, add velocity to further challenge total body explosiveness, balance and anaerobic endurance. Transverse plane or rotational explosiveness training should be incorporated into an athlete's protocol to help ‘bridge the gap’ between the general strength phase and sport specific training phases of the athletic conditioning paradigm. 


  1. McGill, S. (2007). Low Back Disorders: Evidenced-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation. Second Edition . Human Kinetics.
  2. Cook, G. (2003).Athletic Body in Balance: Optimal movement skills and conditioning for performance. Human Kinetics.
  3. O’Sullivan, S &  Schmitz, T. (1988) Physical Rehabilitation: Assessment and Treatment (2nd Edition).  Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.