Power Moves

January 29, 2015
Targeted exercises in the weightroom and the gym can correct movement deficiencies and ensure that your athletes move with optimal balance, coordination, and efficiency.
By Kristy Crowley

Kristy Crowley, MS, MA, CSCS, USAW, is Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Columbia University. She and Tommy Sheehan, MS, Columbia's Director of Strength and Conditioning, also work closely with Denver-based Movement Training Systems. She can be reached at: kc2381@columbia.edu.

Editor's note: We have put a series of video clips on our Web site to demonstrate six specific exercises discussed in this article. When you see a box indicating a numbered video clip, we invite you to visit www.training-conditioning.com and click the "Video Library" link on the left-hand side of the page to access the videos. All six numbered clips will appear in a menu under the heading "Movement Training."

Recently, as I was analyzing a basketball player's change-of-direction motor pattern, I noticed he was lunging instead of staying over his feet when approaching the turn. The lunge motion produced unnecessary stress to his knee and hip joints, and overworked his hip flexors. I knew it was putting the athlete at risk for injury, so I explained to him what was wrong and prescribed some drills that would help him fix the problem.

An outsider might be surprised to learn that an NCAA Division I athlete would display deficiency in such a fundamental movement. But the truth is that athletes at all levels can have sub-optimal movement patterns, which limit their performance and increase their injury risk.

Every strength coach knows the importance of efficient movement--it's one of the most basic concepts in athlete development. But how much do you know about the specifics of correcting a deficiency? In our program at Columbia, we have found effective ways to break down inefficient movement patterns and eliminate them. I'll explain our strategies here, and also "show and tell" some of my favorite training methods for addressing common movement issues.

Let's start with the obvious: A sound movement training philosophy should always be tailored to the athlete's sport. First and foremost, this means strength coaches must understand what energy systems are utilized, which motor patterns are predominant, and what body positions are taxed during the athlete's practices and competition. Training basketball players to increase their one-rep max in the bench press or hang clean is nice, but it's not as important as teaching them to land in a balanced position, absorb shock after jumping for a rebound, or change direction efficiently.

For the past two years, I have been fortunate to learn movement training from Tommy Sheehan, Columbia's Director of Strength and Conditioning. He has taught me several key principles that are essential to optimizing an athlete's movement patterns.

One of the most important parts of his philosophy holds that proper foot placement is critical to almost every type of athletic success. Foot position includes several elements, from toe direction to stance width, which largely determine the quality of the power base during athletic movement. Since all movement is initiated from the base, it's essential to train the functionality of the foot by increasing mobility and pushing forces.

In addition, most athletes experience an injury at some point in their careers that can be blamed, directly or indirectly, on improper foot placement. Details such as sound turning mechanics with the feet in the right place and no unnecessary lunging or overstriding can help every athlete lower their risk of both acute and chronic injuries.

Now, I will discuss some specific areas of movement in which many athletes display deficiency. For each, I'll explain the common faults, outline why they happen and how they can be corrected, and share a drill that I've found can get the job done.

Squatting movements. Think of a basketball player defending an opponent with the ball. Instead of being able to sit back and down at the hips with the chest up and shoulders at the same level for an extended period, most players will compromise their balance by rocking back and forth and elevating their body from their hips to their shoulders.

Exercises that engage the upper-back and hip musculature are key for fixing this problem. Most athletic positions involve a linkage between the upper-back and hip muscles, which work in concert to help an athlete maintain and change position. Combination movements targeting these two areas maximize the transfer of strength training to movements on the field or court. At Columbia, we make that connection with an exercise called the rack squat.

Using a squat rack, the athlete starts with the weight of the bar on their back and places their mid-foot (the point where the arch begins) directly in line with the front of the rack. The athlete squats as low as they can while maintaining contact with the rack on both the descent and ascent of the motion. They concentrate on getting lower in each repetition, and aim to produce a controlled movement pattern with a 3-2-1 tempo (3-count down, 2-count pause, 1-count up).

Video Clip One: Rack Squat

When performing rack squats, we keep the weight relatively light at first, typically starting with a 45-pound barbell. Once the athlete demonstrates proficiency, we begin loading. A typical workload for newer athletes might include three sets of 15 reps at 45, 75, and 95 pounds, while advanced athletes might use 95, 135, and 185 pounds.

Because the athlete's feet are aligned directly under the hips, there is no opportunity for compensation. The upper-back musculature and the muscles around the hips are forced to move fluidly, thus strengthening the coordinated relationship between these two muscle groups.

Most athletes cannot bend to 90 degrees in their squat at first, and must do multiple reps in succession to develop this specific movement component. The rack squat is crucial for developing proper technique for front and back squatting movements, which must be performed regularly in many sports.

Directional turning. Many athletes have a tendency to initiate turns with their upper body as opposed to their lower body. This leaves them off-balance and raises their center of gravity. The lower the athlete stays during a turn, the easier it is to move with efficiency and power.

To correct this movement pattern, we begin by teaching athletes how to gallop in place. This improves their proficiency in shifting weight from the front foot to the back foot, and allows them to maximize hip explosion without raising their center of gravity. We teach the galloping athlete to contact the ground with their lead foot positioned directly underneath their hip. As the foot touches down, the weight should be on the mid-foot region and the hip on the releasing side should extend, thus generating force through the weight shift.

Video Clip Two: Galloping

Once the athlete understands the concept of shifting power output, we ask them to use the in-place galloping motion when turning in the opposite direction. On command, the galloping athlete pushes down with the lead foot directly underneath the hip, then shifts their weight to the back foot. Next, they execute the turning mechanism by pushing off the back foot while changing direction. Once the athlete is comfortable with this movement pattern, we have them gallop on the move and incorporate change of direction.

Driving forward. Pushing through the foot correctly is imperative in running movements. It means the athlete knows how to flex their ankle properly, release the opposite hip for acceleration, and drive forward while keeping the foot angled toward the intended destination. This creates increased velocity from the mid-foot, which allows for the production of maximum kinetic energy.

We use exercises called walks and snaps to train proper hip release and pushing through the foot. For walks, we have the athlete take steps with their legs locked and ankles flexed. This way, the heel touches the ground first, releasing the hip. By engaging the hip and ankle, the athlete learns to push through the foot, a skill that requires the heel and mid-foot of the same leg to work together. This is essential for linear speed development, and it sometimes takes several sessions before an athlete becomes proficient in the movement.

Running in general, and sprinting especially, relies on the use of an elastic reflex when the foot contacts the ground. "Snapping" the flexed ankle forward creates a pushing motion that's required for acceleration. The snaps exercise is performed the same way as the walks, but incorporates snapping the flexed ankle and bringing the mid-foot into contact with the ground in a linear pattern. Unlike in the walks, the heel doesn't touch the ground during snaps.

Video Clip Three: Walks and Snaps

For both walks and snaps, the ground contact must occur directly underneath the hip. It's also essential for the athlete to make the opposite hip release just as the mid-foot comes into contact with the ground.

Alignment for support. Athletes with inefficient movement patterns tend to lead with their upper body--leaning forward instead of keeping their torso directly aligned over their hips. This creates balance and compensation issues that make proper foot placement difficult. Oftentimes, the foot contacts the ground behind the hip instead of directly beneath it, putting the entire body at a disadvantage.

After an athlete is taught to improve their pushing movements using the walks and snaps, they're better able to understand the function of their base of support. That's when we can also help them correct any forward leaning.

We use an exercise called the 45 push to instill proper positioning and eliminate a forward lean. From an athletic position--feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent but not in front of the toes, hips back, back flat, and chest up--the athlete moves in one direction and pushes their opposite foot (left foot for rightward movement, right foot for leftward movement) at a 45 degree angle. When the foot pushes, it should not drag behind, but rather fire underneath the hip explosively so the athlete is already prepared to fire the other foot, creating a zig-zag pattern.

Video Clip Four: 45 Push

Upon contact with the ground, the body should be balanced. If the athlete lands on the mid-foot, it will be difficult to maintain correct body position. Although body weight should not land on the heel, the heel should contact the ground with the weight slightly forward to promote a larger surface area of contact. This improves proprioception between pushes.

The arm action should be oppositional, just as in running, and the shoulders should stay at the same level for the duration of the movement. The positioning developed by this drill is essential for athletes in many sports. Once the athlete has mastered this drill and corrected any forward lean, you can add a vertical jump to the 45 push to make it more challenging.

Stance width. Some athletes' natural athletic stance exceeds the width of their hips and even their shoulders--this is easily detectable when they are front or back squatting. They may see benefits to this position, such as added stability or ease of shifting weight (especially if they point their feet outward to further widen their base), but in most situations, it is not to their overall advantage.

If a basketball defender, for instance, wants to prevent an opponent from advancing to the basket, they should always try to square their feet and keep their stance no wider than their hips. Otherwise, a smart offensive player will attack the open foot and exploit the defender's limited ability to change direction. When the feet are square, the hips and shoulders are also square, allowing the athlete to move in any direction more efficiently. Likewise, a trained volleyball player will not go up for a spike from a stance wider than hip-width--their feet will be directly underneath their hips for maximum power output.

Any stance in which the feet are outside the hip-width base results in drastic power loss. Weight training stances should resemble the stances you want athletes to assume on the field or court, and one of the best exercises for instilling proper base width is the back squat.

When an athlete squats with their feet hip-width apart, they typically cannot squat as much weight, so left to their own devices, they'll often spread their feet further. But improper stance in the weightroom leads to improper stance during play, so this must be discouraged.

From a hip-width stance, the athlete should push with the majority of the weight on the outside of the foot. This position promotes a proper athletic stance while also preventing internal rotation at the knee, which puts undue stress on the knee and hip joints. With the weight on the outer part of the foot, the larger musculature of the hips is the primary actor in executing the movement.

Video Clip Five: Back Squat

The athlete's hip movement should precede the knee bend in this exercise. If not, the heels will rise, forcing the knees to shoot out in front of the toes and putting substantial unwanted stress on the knee joints. The back should be flat, elbows pointed straight down, eyes looking straight ahead, and chest up. This posture will also limit stress on the lower back.

Step quantity in deceleration. When you watch an athlete decelerate, how big are their steps? If the athlete takes large steps, their deceleration is awkward, stressful for the lower body, and inefficient.

Short, choppy steps are the proper way to break the feet down when decelerating (for instance before a turn). This way, the athlete won't need to lunge into the turn, like the basketball player I introduced at the beginning of this article. Among other problems, lunging increases pressure on the hip flexor when performing the turning mechanism.

When decelerating, the upper body should be aligned directly over the mid-foot, with the center of gravity lowered and the knees bent. Contrary to popular belief, the foot that touches down to turn is not directly in charge of the turn. In fact, the weight should be shifted to the back foot, as in a pushing motion, and the turn should be created by the back foot after the athlete pushes off.

The chop and turn drill is an excellent way to ingrain proper deceleration movement leading into turns. To begin, we set up six cones, with 10 yards between the first and second, five yards between the second and third, 10 yards between the third and fourth, five yards between the fourth and fifth, and 10 yards between the fifth and sixth. The athlete passes through this cone set up, accelerating through the first 10 yards, then decelerating through the next five, then re-accelerating, and so on.

During deceleration, I cue athletes to start chopping their feet with short steps and firing their hamstrings three to four feet before reaching the cone. Their feet should contact the ground directly under their hips, and they should slightly lower their torso as they decelerate, while maintaining an upright posture.

Once the athlete has mastered this drill, the next step is to introduce turns. With a cone placed 10 yards from the start position, I designate which foot the athlete will plant when changing direction--for this example, we'll use the right foot. The athlete sprints 10 yards, again beginning to decelerate by chopping the feet and firing the hamstrings three to four feet from the cone. They plant the right foot next to the cone, lower the body slightly, keep the hip directly above the plant foot, and shift their weight from the right to the left foot in a pushing motion. Simultaneously, they turn the left foot to change direction, and then sprint back to the starting spot.

Video Clip Six: Chop and Turn

In this example, the left foot is in charge of pushing the body forward after the turn. We're always careful to perform this drill an equal number of times with a left-foot turn and right-foot turn for maximum bilateral transfer.

Often, the benefits of correcting sub-optimal movement patterns are measured in the smallest of increments--a split-second faster change of direction, a little less difficulty keeping up with the quickest opponents, or a slightly more fluid transition from full-speed running to half-speed during play. But in competition, those minor differences can mean the difference between victory and defeat, especially when repeated time and again over the course of a contest.

There are also some important macro benefits to optimizing movement patterns. For instance, the ability to gain power and explosion by squatting from an athletic base is associated with recruiting more muscle fibers in specific areas and creating more force when jumping. And maintaining correct body position throughout a contest makes energy systems more efficient, delays fatigue, and can help prevent injury.

So while the immediate impact of the exercises detailed above is self-evident, the broader benefits should not be overlooked. The more we focus our conditioning programs on true movement integrity, in addition to the standard fare of strength and power development, the more successful our athletes will be.
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