Why Better Rotation Is One of the Most Overlooked Ways to Increase Athletic Performance

Understand the importance of rotational movement and how proper training can lead to increased athletic performance.

First we build movement proficiency in a pattern. Then we build strength in that pattern. Lastly, we develop power to take our development of a pattern to the highest level. We apply this simple process to many movement patterns, such as squatting, hip hinging, pushing and pulling. Yet for some reason, we fail to approach rotation in this same manner.

Our body is designed to be rotational. When we look at how we often create power in throwing, swinging, punching and kicking, it's via rotation. Many coaches realize this, and that's why methods like medicine ball training have become so popular in athletic development. However, when we re-examine our programming, we see that coaches often treat developing rotation different than they do other movement patterns of human motion.

What other movement pattern do we start with power development before training the quality of the pattern? None. Yet that's exactly what we do when it comes to training rotation. This is especially flawed as we could argue that rotation is one of the most complex of the seven human movement patterns (squat, hip hinge, push, pull, lunge, rotate and gait.)

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First we build movement proficiency in a pattern. Then we build strength in that pattern. Lastly, we develop power to take our development of a pattern to the highest level. We apply this simple process to many movement patterns, such as squatting, hip hinging, pushing and pulling. Yet for some reason, we fail to approach rotation in this same manner.

Our body is designed to be rotational. When we look at how we often create power in throwing, swinging, punching and kicking, it's via rotation. Many coaches realize this, and that's why methods like medicine ball training have become so popular in athletic development. However, when we re-examine our programming, we see that coaches often treat developing rotation different than they do other movement patterns of human motion.

What other movement pattern do we start with power development before training the quality of the pattern? None. Yet that's exactly what we do when it comes to training rotation. This is especially flawed as we could argue that rotation is one of the most complex of the seven human movement patterns (squat, hip hinge, push, pull, lunge, rotate and gait.)

We should look to create drills that first pattern rotation, then build strength in rotation, and then we can progress to power development. This is not only important because it will create better outcomes for our programs, but rotation carries some significant risks that we have to be aware of when we train.

Rotating vs. Twisting

For years, people thought about rotation as the "twisting" of the torso. However, as we have gained a better understanding of the body, we've quickly realized how detrimental this thought process is in not only creating results, but keeping people healthy. Physical therapist Gray Cook and strength coach Mike Boyle developed a model called the "Joint by Joint Approach." This model, henceforth referred to as JBJ, was to help guide a better understanding of what different segments of the body were actually designed to perform.

JBJ is a purposefully simple model demonstrating a joint's dominance toward creating stability or mobility. When it comes to rotational training, it is important to understand the sequence that happens from the ground up:

  • Foot: Stability
  • Ankle: Mobility
  • Knee: Stability
  • Hip: Mobility
  • Lumbar Spine: Stability
  • Thoracic Spine: Mobility

We quickly see that twisting the torso and not using the hips makes us use the lumbar spine to create movement. It is not designed to perform in this manner. While the lumbar spine has some rotation (approximately 4-14 degrees), it has nothing like the hips possess (35-45 degrees of internal rotation and 40-60 degrees of external rotation). Teaching athletes to use the hip, not the low back, to create rotation is key!

How Do We Create Rotation?

Even though the hip has the biggest potential for rotation in the lower body, the creation of rotation is initiated much farther down the body. As Dr. Chan and Dr. Rudins of the Mayo Clinic explain, "The foot is the 'root' between the body and the earth."

The foot creates what physical therapist Gary Gray would call a "chain reaction" up the body. The foot developing not just a pivot, but force into the ground is what makes our hips rotate as our trunk keeps a "plank." In other words, we want movement of the hips and stability of the low back. As strength coach Dr. Brandon Marcello states, stability is really about "preventing unwanted movement, while allowing for wanted movement to occur." That is why rotation is a difficult pattern to develop and has higher levels of complexity.

With this in mind, we want to first learn how to create the correct pivot of the foot, then how to maintain our "plank" of the trunk. Bracing through the trunk while our lower body creates rotation is our foundation to then becoming more reflexive to develop power at higher levels.

First, the Feet

To successfully teach the athlete how to rotate, we must first establish correct positioning. That means establishing the following position:

  • Feet wider than hips
  • Soft bend in the knees
  • Hips slightly bent

In coaching the feet, it is important to note that both feet are actually active, just creating different movements. One foot is creating the pivot while the other is developing stability to the body so we move more like a top that spins. This means that we have to slightly turn out both feet, as while some could produce these movements with feet neutral, it could potentially put a lot of stress on the MCL and meniscus of the knee, so giving a slight turn out will be helpful for many.

A great way to help people understand these concepts of the feet is through the use of XL mini-bands.

The feet help us not only create rotation, but are the drivers of the glutes and help us develop core stability from the ground up.

The Moving Plank

In initial phases of teaching rotation we are going to have to create a lot of tension in the torso to learn how to prevent unwanted movement. Over time we will train the balance of relaxation and tension which is required to produce powerful movements. These progressions show how we can build success through rotational movements by focusing on different variables.

Why Rotational Performance Matters

So many sports require good rotational performance. We spend tons of time teaching Squats, Power Cleans and a host of other exercises, but we generally fail to realize the importance of rotational training to unlocking athletic performance. When we truly understand how our body functions we realize that re-evaluating our priorities in training may need to be adjusted to truly develop athletic success. Training to rotate better has far-reaching benefits, as the requisite mixture of mobility, stability and strength is a foundational component of athletic movement. The below videos hit on some of my favorite rotational training exercises plus the benefits they can offer.

Photo Credit: 4x6/iStock

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Topics: SQUAT | LOWER BODY | CORE | UPPER BODY | ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE | HIP MUSCLES