By Carl Valle
If you ask around, nearly everyone involved in a rotational sport trains rotation outside of the skill they perform. The science agrees and sometimes disagrees with “sport specific” training with rotation. Several companies provide equipment that mimics or replicates the sporting action, and coaches sometimes use either those tools or general options such as strength training.
Perhaps no bigger mystery exists than how the body transmits forces up the kinetic chain to swinging and striking sports, and methodologies range from leaving the specific training alone to the opposite—prescribing very personalized methods to athletes. It doesn’t matter if you are a golfer, baseball player, or tennis athlete, rotation is popular with everyone because of the prevalence of core training and medicine ball workouts. If you are serious about the field events or general core training, this article covers the science, the exercise, and the workouts themselves.
A quick disclaimer: The modalities listed are likely to be copied because it’s frankly easier to do workouts on the internet than to think and create workouts. When I share, the goal is to use them as examples of how I prescribe training based on challenges and assessments, not to freely send out training plans to unknown athletes. What works for us may not work for your athletes, and could even hurt them. Usually I bring up exercises and suggest loading considerations, but in this article and a few others, I get into more details to help illustrate a concept. Most of the workouts are cut-and-paste jobs from old records of what I felt worked, but they are not research studies, just applications of research or best practice.
Build Your Legs from the Feet up
It’s better to have a set of great legs than a great core, and that may sound sacrilegious, but based on what I see with training programs, below the navel is more important than above and around it. I am in no way advocating that you ignore the torso, but I know those with a great leg program and a satisfactory pillar strength program will always beat those with a perfect cutting-edge core system that has average leg development.
When it comes to developing a swing or punch, rotation transfers power, it doesn’t create it. No matter how many times you quote Bruce Lee’s “Tao of Jeet Kune Do,” his training theories are not laws, but abstract ideas that are sometimes wrong. Conversely, his comments on legwork and footwork are uncanny, so it’s not that what he says is true; it’s just easy to interpret his work incorrectly or with bias.
Foot function is everything with rotation, as the pressures during the swing of a club, stick, racquet, or bat are unique and complex. I understand the obsession with balance from coaches in the past, but it’s not as much about stability as it is the speed of contraction with a highly coordinated movement pattern. Take a look at a baseball swing and see how much the center of pressure changes in a matter of tenths of seconds—a lot happens in a short period of time. Discus, hammer, and shot put are examples of unholy raw power and highly coordinated movements. In fact, in the book The Physics of Baseball, author Robert K. Adair explains beautifully the wonderful juxtaposition of grace and brute force that is necessary for a mammoth home run, on page 105:
“If a sufficient prize were given to the ball hit the farthest under baseball rules, one might recruit an Olympic-level weight man, quick as a cat, and carrying nearly 300 pounds on a near-seven-foot frame, to do the job.”
Leg power for rotation is about all force vectors with insane levels of precise footwork and speed, not just gross squatting, hip thrusting, or lunging laterally. When developing legs for rotation, a mix of methods and exercises is the best path, and only your own testing and recipes will work for your athlete. Due to the duration of contractions during golf swings and throwing, it may make sense to focus on rapid volitional contractions because the overspeed research doesn’t really support the idea of assisted rotation. More work is needed in the research world to see how leg power transfers to rotational forces, but without a starting point from the ground up, medicine ball throws are never going to make monsters on the field.
Focus on Redirection and Energy Conservation, Not Just Static Stabilization
I wrote a few blog posts that covered a collection of smart experts with core training a few years ago. It’s clear that core training has value and you should use techniques that ensure the trunk functions well, but don’t worry that your athletes will miss out if you don’t do endless exercises. The spine has a lot of important functions that severe injury can compromise, but anyone who has done a dissection of a human lumbar spine will be aware that we are not trying to protect a delicate flower.
The spine is wonderfully designed and has several layers of connective tissue to reduce the unnecessary motion that occurs from locomotion and common movement patterns. Unless you are trying to sabotage the body, it’s unlikely that you will destroy your back and be crippled for life, so don’t look at low back pain as mechanical in nature only. Pain is a tricky subject; If you want to read more on the subject of pain, this post by Lars Avemarie is a great one.
My focus is performance, the other side of the spectrum. Some training methods ignore the “decelerative” needs for either controlled rotation or the ability to redirect forces properly. In short, it’s not bad to think about stabilization, but usually the rotation created was internal, meaning it was purposely recruited by the athlete. Therefore, we need to think about redirecting and conserving energy with medicine balls rather than letting forces dissipate into a dead end.
My proposal is that the muscle groups from the hip through the shoulders should be able to redirect more force than they create; otherwise, the recoil mechanisms of the torso are lost. The difference between concentric and countermovement contractions in rotation should be similar to the eccentric utilization ratio, or what is the purpose of rotational training? Sure, concentric strength in rotational movements can be improved, but not utilizing the theoretical pre-stretch of hip and shoulder separation seems like a waste of potential energy. What about rate of torque development? If the legs are anchored enough from a blocking stance after initiation, shouldn’t we see more rotational power? There is a lot to think about.
A combination of braced maximal rotational strength with rapid elastic-like motions may develop the rate of torque needed for the fast exit velocity of balls. Hand speed or punching power is still unclear with the research, but over time, expect experts like Israel Halperin to unlock the mystery of boxing and mixed martial arts. While force-velocity data on body speed and body displacement is available, not enough information on throwing and swinging is, mainly due to coordination requirements and rule constraints.
Train Isometrically Vertically and Maximally
Prone and supine core training will not ruin coordination, nor will it solve most of the injury problems in sport. You can do dead bugs and bird dogs like a therapy demo model, but even those exercises proposed by the spine experts have limited transfer. Training doesn’t need to look like what we see in sport, but it should have enough specificity or overload that it can attack the preparation spectrum on either end. Replicating sport is just a watering-down process, but living on a diet of isolation exercises isn’t wise either.
What I propose is rather strange: focus on isometric training and make it on your feet from time to time. We usually see lying horizontal with most core training that involves bridging, while the unstable craze made loading on one’s feet more of an act of balance than strength training. The solution? More isometric work on one’s feet.
In “The Top 8 Isometric Exercises for Strength and Speed,” I listed activities that involved isometric exercises with dynamic loading. Many coaches share partially isometric exercises that can be done on the feet, but most of those are, again, stabilization rather than overcoming eccentric or maximal effort. An interesting study from Japan focused on isometric loading accurately and over the time course of a longer period of training. What was teased out was the fact that isometric training was useful for hitting velocity, yet due to culture, this study sort of faded out in popularity.
The exercises suggested also pose a potential problem for training, as measuring isometric strength without feedback usually results in diminishing efforts down the line (no pun intended). Using a load cell changes this as it gives instant feedback and is portable. I don’t think we will see the on-deck circle evolve to a montage of potentiation methods, but I think we will see innovative hitting practices down the road.
Another interesting finding regarding rotational training exists with vertical force profiles. While lateral jumping seems to be the rage in pitching, the blocking or front leg may benefit from eccentric training as well. The reason is that, like the blocking leg in field throwing events, horizontal transfer relies on vertical stabilization. You may not get propulsion from depth jumps or other reactive work in rotational sports, but you may conserve early hip strength in rotation better.
Learn from Track & Field Coaches and Golf Biomechanics Experts
Golf is an international sport, so from a research standpoint, it’s better to study than baseball. I thought about suggesting tennis, because it’s technically both a rotational sport and overhead activity, but much of the research is on all of the sport’s demands such as court motion and conditioning aspects. We accept golf as a driving and putting focus, and that means mechanics and skills are priorities in the studies.
Similar to golf, athletics or track and field is also international, so the research on performance is far more compelling than baseball and cricket, and even the racquet sports. Throwing is another enigma, as most of the quality throwing research is on javelin and the rest of the studies are on throwing in baseball. Then we have football, a sport with scant research and sport science outside of repurposed rugby and AFL investigations.
The best way to use athletics and golf is to focus on training modeling for the other sports that involve rotation. One of the best baseball strength coaches who should be recognized—Steve Odgers—came from a decathlon background. Ralph Mann, an expert in track and field biomechanics, has helped improve golf performance for years. Bob Alejo, who I mention elsewhere in this article, was instrumental with UCLA Track and Field in the 1980s, during their heyday. As you can see, the mother of all sports, athletics, is a fantastic resource for everyone in human performance. When in doubt, look to track and field for either answers or clues to what may work, as even today the ancient sport has shaped many innovations in the younger games.
Modeling sports success is not going away anytime soon. While there is a lot of effort being made to promote pseudo-science skills and consulting on high performance without objective methodology, those approaches are easily exposed when you construct a fluid plan with benchmarks and processes. Rotational power needs more than speculation after EMG and motion capture; it needs KPIs that are relevant and manageable. Then, after the model is strong enough to be useful, workouts that feed into those benchmarks are appropriate. In my experience, the best KPIs in performance come from Olympic realms, and no sport does a better job producing systematic results than cycling, swimming, and track and field.
Using Collinear Resistance for PNF Patterns and Biofeedback
I must be fair and include some mention of collinear resistance, as its technology and capability make the new Proteus system (Boston Biomotion) very intriguing. It is my opinion that collinear resistance is the theoretical sixth element for strength and conditioning coaches and sports medicine specialists. For those unfamiliar with collinear resistance, the modality is liquid-like but uses an intelligent arm to overload the body in true three dimensions.
What can be confusing to coaches is that cable systems are single vector, and thus overload with one direction. Collinear resistance provides up to three vectors all at once, and feels like a high viscosity fluid with extremely sensitive mechanical hardware. Like isokinetics, the resistance is constant and feels smooth, but natural instead of overly mechanical and restrictive.
True three-dimensional resistance feels more demanding to the user, so there is less resistance needed to challenge the body. I have experienced the product loading twice before at demos, and it’s clearly challenging without having to be extreme. While it doesn’t provide eccentric overload, the collinear resistance does have similarities to accommodating resistance and deceleration-type experiences with certain exercises.
I believe it’s going to be best used in hospitals and by some professional teams for baseline testing, as it’s a welcome change for post-surgical care and athlete assessments. After using it a few times, I walked away with a very clear idea of the capabilities of the machine and resistance modality. Looking at the company’s electromyography data, it’s clear that resistance is novel and has a lot of potential with return to play, as well as sports performance. Because the solution is new, it’s still a mystery as to what it can do compared to conventional options. Time will tell how the body chronically adapts to the modality.
There are other areas that collinear resistance will help with since it’s a versatile machine, but for now, rotational patterns seem to be the key motions the Proteus excels at. In addition to chops and lifts, the system is suited for high-precision motions like external and internal shoulder rotation as well. Core training is a valuable part of athlete preparation, but to me, most of the limitation of transfer to performance is the lack of quantification of both load and motion. The research and experts in sports performance will be the ones to address carryover and best practices in the future, but rotational power seems to have a new option that may be a great fit.
Develop Your Upper Body Strength
Bob Alejo did a fine job explaining the limitations and potential of grip training for performance, but those involved in rotational sports should think about shoulders and elbows more than wrists and hands. The goal of grip training is to not let the wrist and fingers be a weak link in the equation, but you don’t need to rip a phonebook in half to be effective in sport. Focusing on pulling, pressing, pushing, and extending is a path to utilizing the legs and spine effectively, as most rotational sports treat the upper body as something that is just there for the ride. My recommendation? Do the opposite. It’s fine to challenge the upper body to be more effective, just don’t chase numbers like they will transfer to club or bat speed as much as leg power.
The areas that are tricky to evaluate in the research are shoulder function, elbow performance, and the spine. Don’t stress about looking for the perfect test or even exercises; think globally and monitor locally with joint function and performance. How the upper body functions with high-speed rotational motions is somewhat murky, but enough research exists today that makes the conclusions on strength of the upper body relevant.
Often, what holds back core training or even lower body training is upper body development. It’s hard to do Pallof presses with heavy load or even planks if the shoulder joints are not prepared to support the rest of the body. Exercises like medicine balls throws require strong hips and posterior muscles of the spinal column, but pressing and pushing strength is indirectly involved in many of the exercises seen in contemporary core training.
Theoretically, the tolerance to nervous system fatigue, specifically the central nervous system, may be challenged by additional work to the upper body. So far, no research supports or dismisses this idea, but I bet that a generally well-prepared body is better than local preparation only. More is more only if an athlete can recover well. Central fatigue isn’t just about power training, as sleep and other factors interact with that phenomena. For the most part, tapering can come from reducing all work, and perhaps local muscle performance will rebound from total body development.
Up Your Skills with Biomechanics and Coaching
The lack of systematic qualitative and quantitative skill development in rotational power sports is very strange. While nearly every team or individual coach uses video analysis, it’s not much different than a TV meteorologist pointing on a map to obvious references. If you want to get the most of your training, make sure your instructional coach is working with your preparation coach. Most of the time, I see a compromise where the strength coach wants to be the movement skill person beyond general athletic development or the skills coach is giving haphazard training advice. Some coaches can do both, but most can’t, no matter how well-meaning they are.
You need a team approach, or what will happen is more of the same—stagnation. Skills with rotational sport require great coaching and whoever is charge needs a checks-and-balances system to keep the athlete improving or playing at a high level. In my motor skill development article, I covered some of the pitfalls of cues and applying the wrong tasks, but for rotation we need more coaches in combat and swinging sports to be up-to-date with the correct sport science and sports training education.
Speed kills, whether it’s body speed in running or batting, or ball speed in other parts of the game. The key is knowing whether skill or preparation, or a combination of the two, is holding back an athlete. I would argue that in team sport, teaching or instructional components have struggled for years, and it’s time to put more energy in pedagogy of skill development outside of general athleticism. I do believe we are now better experts in motion analysis, but we are just scratching the surface in getting athletes to move better. There are unknown talents currently doing great things, but learning what those techniques are is the reason we need formal research and education on teaching rotational sport skills.
Train Your Entire Body to Prepare Your Core
Don’t be upset if this list of methods just appears to be a shotgun approach to training rotation. I designed it to present the best approaches and cover all the bases. Rotation is not just about core training or even strength training; it’s about skilled motion and developed power from overload. In the future, we will see better research and even better training approaches, because we are only halfway there in the sports performance world.
The sports training field is learning every day about looking at the context of athlete development. We, as a profession, are also learning how to augment rotational output, as well as decrease the injury rates on the field. Training holistically with attention to all variables is the best approach, and this article moves you a little bit closer to the truth of what works and what doesn’t.